Overcoming Parental Guilt

Parenting is the hardest job in the world.

Posted Jan 18, 2021

Many parents tell me that they feel overwhelming guilt after yelling at their child. They remember how badly they felt as children when their parents yelled at them, and had even sworn to themselves that they would never do this as a parent. I commiserate with these parents by acknowledging that parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. When your child keeps leaving his dirty clothing on the bathroom floor after you have told him for the umpteenth time to put them into the hamper after his showers, it’s hard to stay cool. But yelling frightens children and causes them to feel bad about themselves, so making amends is crucial.

I always assure parents that there are ways to repair an upsetting interaction with children, even days later. I call it, "cleaning up the situation." The guilt parents feel is actually positive. It is an internal signal that they must take action. 

The first step I suggest is apologizing to their child. Historically. parents have been afraid that saying, “I'm sorry,” makes them look weak or takes away their authority. On the contrary, it actually makes parents look strong. It shows that they care enough to take responsibility for their negative actions and make amends. Furthermore, children get the crucial message that their parents do not want to hurt their feelings, they love them. 

It also gives children other important information. They learn that when they are in a relationship, it's very important to take responsibility for their negative behaviors and find better ways to handle situations. This is key to building a successful relationship.

Once you apologize, talk over the situation with your child and explore alternative ways you both could have interacted. You can invite your child to problem solve with you, by asking, “What could we have done differently?” Offer some suggestions. For instance, you might propose, “Maybe Mommy could have said, ‘I asked you to pick up your clothing after washing up and you ignored me. Can you please go back and put your things in the hamper.’” Or, “I could have said, ‘I am getting very angry. I need a break. I'll be right back,’ and left the room to calm down.” It takes children endless repetitions to internalize the rules and they will make errors from time to time even after they do. Calm reminders tend to speed the process. If instead you start getting emotionally worked up, things tend to go downhill.

Next, ask your child what he could have done differently and make a suggestion. “Maybe you could have said, “I’m sorry I left my clothing on the floor. I was rushing to see my show. I’ll try to remember next time.” You never know. Children often come up with their own innovative solutions, such as, “I’ll make a sign and put it on the bathroom door to remind me!”

Every time you and your children repair a situation in this way, your close bond is restored. Your child internalizes this way of problem-solving and it becomes a positive model for the future.