I rarely meet a parent who denies having guilt about how they have raised their children. For most of us a moderate amount of guilt is actually a sign of love, our strong attachment and commitment to do the best we can to raise healthy children. Of course it is a matter of degrees.
As in all things, too much or too little can create a serious problem for both parent and child. The trick is to know we have it and why and more importantly, how it drives our choices and actions in our role as parent.
Guilt is an emotion, not a reality or a life sentence. Guilt arises when we become aware of failing to be the best we could have been for our children. It comes and goes and can be mild or debilitating. Guilt tries to tell us something is wrong and needs to be corrected. If it isn't faced it will turn into shame, a feeling of worthlessness and a negative sense of self.
Guilt can heal and be resolved with compassion and time. It lessens when shared out in the open and with understanding. Shame is more difficult to resolve. It is not about making mistakes. It is about being a mistake. In time and with help it too can be lessened.
What do we feel guilty about?
These are the Top 20 comments I hear from parents about their guilt:
• I wasn't there enough.
• I didn't listen.
• I was too focused on the house and work.
• I wasn't affectionate enough.
• I was critical.
• I yelled, hit, and blamed.
• I was a bad role model.
• I didn't take the time to understand my children..
• I wasn't consistent
• I pushed too hard.
• I didn't push enough.
• I spanked.
• I drank.
• I was depressed.
• I fought with my children's dad or mom.
• I got divorced.
• I said hurtful things.
• I was selfish.
• I ignored my child.
• I didn't protect my children.
When Guilt Becomes Destructive
Guilt is a normal emotion that can be a warning sign or nudge in the right direction when it arises as a result of inappropriate behavior or stepping outside our own values. For some, guilt becomes a chronic, even obsessive thought process that is no longer connected to a specific mistake or regrettable action. When guilty parents become stuck in their pain they may be unwittingly creating more serious problems for themselves and even their children.
If a child becomes depressed, exhibits problem behavior, has ADHD, uses drugs or alcohol, gets poor grades, is lazy, is defiant of authority, overweight, anorexic etc. guilty parents react in a variety of ways to cope with their pain. They may not be aware of the guilt, shame or any of their emotions but will instead act out what is going on internally.
Self-blame can appear in many forms including enabling, dramatic pleas for change, threatening, blaming the child for your distress "How could you do this to me," withdrawing, raging, anxiety, hovering or even quitting as a parent. Guilt can linger and follow us long after children are out of the nest.
Many parents do not realize that when they are visibly and dramatically upset about how their child is developing or performing, a normal child will internalize that as "I am not enough" or "I'm hurting my Dad and Mom." Since children's well-being depends on their attachment to us, they may work harder to be what they believe we want them to be even it is isn't best for them. Some may run away emotionally, rejecting our help in order to cope. When a guilty parent pushes a child toward perfection, children may feel the need to appear okay while denying their struggles and feelings.
The Good News about Guilt
There is a silver lining here. If you're stuck in this cycle of parenting - you can find a healthier way to manager your guilt and/or shame. Remember that parenting does not need to be perfect. Our children learn from every experience in their lives, even our mistakes.
If you had a very painful childhood you may be falling into the trap of viewing your children through the lens of your pain. You may be driven by your need to make it all better by giving your children a pain free childhood.
Do have compassion for yourself and your painful experiences. But try to separate your past experience from the new and improved approach you are providing for your children. The goal is "good enough" -- not perfection. Children need some challenges and frustrations to become healthy functioning adults.
Remember to stand back and look at ourselves and our children as complex human beings. It is obvious that we are all imperfect, unpredictable, inconsistent, driven by heredity and environment, as well as resilient, and capable of change.
I remember myself as a young woman of 24, already divorced with a two-year-old son. I had no idea how young I was and how immature. I made many mistakes and I still have a twinge of guilt, mostly about being selfish and impulsive. However, I now have compassion for myself at that stage of my life. I know in my heart that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time and I had a lot of growing up to do.
The guilt I carried about being divorced was a heavy burden for me and my burden could have become a burden to my son. With help I discovered that my child did not have to be okay to convince me that I was a good mother.
A wise therapist once told me that children have a right to and a need for their own story in life. That includes making and learning from mistakes which my guilt could not allow. I learned that guilt could no longer play a part in my role as parent.
I went on to have a daughter and as my children grew I also had to learn that guilt did not need to be the spoiler in my memories of the joys and challenges of raising them.
The key is to focus on the process of parenting, which is basically loving, guiding and reassuring children instead of focusing on the outcome or how they turn out. Learning how to do this will ease the pressure of guilt and will help all of us to accept children as they are and to gradually let go of our role of parenting once they reach adulthood.
Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. For more information, visit Breakthrough online or like Healthy Connections on Facebook.