Do You Experience Parent Shame?

There is a more effective approach.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

Source: geralt/pixaby

When my son was four weeks old, my husband had to escort me, hysterically crying, out of our local Starbucks. We had been quietly sitting there with our newborn when I read in one of my “baby books” that, at four weeks, babies should be sleeping through the night.

My son was not. Not even close. He had been sleeping no more than 20 consecutive minutes since the moment he was born.

“I am already messing up my child” screamed the voice in my head. Bring on the waterworks and people staring in Starbucks.

This episode is memorable for so many reasons. Obviously, there is the embarrassment factor of my outburst. More than that, it is my first memory of the fear and shame that plagues so many parents. The fear that comes from the belief we are messing up our kids

As it turns out, my son had colic. He outgrew that but has been plagued by sleep difficulties his entire life. I honestly don’t know whether I have handled his sleep difficulties the “right way.” I still worry that I made decisions along the way that have not helped, or even made the situation worse.

I will never know.

What I do know, is that I was doing the best I could. 

Whether it is the sleep issues of infancy, the tantrums of toddlerhood, or the countless issues that continue to arise daily, there is no instruction manual. The best we can do is make thoughtful decisions as to how to handle situations as they arise. I frequently share this sentiment with parents in my clinical practice. Just as frequently, I remind myself.

In my clear-headed moments, I know the feelings of fear and shame that creep up when I see my kids struggling aren’t effective. One of the guiding principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is that figuring out the cause and changing behaviors is far more effective than judging and blaming.

This sentiment is helpful in looking at our parenting. We do not need to judge and blame ourselves for the outcomes of our parenting choices. We need to identify what went wrong and what are more productive choices. We need to reflect on our choices from the perspective of “what can I learn to be more effective next time,” rather than “how did I fail?”

It is a common myth that feeling shame and beating ourselves up is an important part of changing our behavior. It is true that shame can motivate a desire to change. However, once that desire for change is activated, continuous feelings of shame and beating ourselves up is ineffective. Rather than inspiring us to change, it promotes shutting down and avoiding.

Parent shame is no different. When we feel bad about ourselves as parents, we are likely to give up and disengage from our kids. Taking a less judgemental approach makes us more willing to look at what we might be able to do differently. It makes us more willing to seek consultation from friends, family, and professionals. Doing so also models a great approach for our kids in learning from their choices.

As my kids grow into teenagers, I continue to question many of my parenting decisions. I watch my clients do the same. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Next time we are feeling the parent shame creep in, I hope we can all remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can and we will continue to work at doing even better.

Hopefully, I will continue these efforts without the fear and shame I felt that day in Starbucks.

The reality is that when I am not overrun with emotion, I know that being an imperfect parent is the best thing for all kids. In what other areas of their lives will they encounter people who don’t make mistakes?