Parental Guilt: A Conundrum

Talking about how parents create problems without making them act even worse.

Posted Nov 27, 2020

 Pointing Finger by Purple Slog, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr: Pointing Finger by Purple Slog, CC by 2.0

When I write about dysfunctional family dynamics in my blog posts, in response, I often get parents and adult children reacting in completely opposite ways to the very same post: The parents think I am putting the blame all on them, and the adult children feel I’m singling them out. Of course, the parents had the issues that are creating difficulties before the kids ever came into existence, so this makes them somewhat more responsible, but they are reacting to binds that they themselves were put into by their own parents. In turn, their parents were reacting to their parents, and so on.

Of course, when people feel blamed for something they don’t really like, but know down deep that they had something to do with, they tend to feel guilty, which almost always makes them defensive. Defensiveness, in turn, causes them to try to block discussions about what they might be able to do differently in order to fix a family problem. That would be bad enough, but there is something else that amplifies this problem even further. The fact that the parents were already feeling guilty even before reading my stuff is often the problem that caused them to give off destructive double messages to their kids in the first place.

The women’s movement was great in terms of opening up fulfilling opportunities for women for which they are more than qualified. However, it has also been a big factor in creating a lot of parental guilt when both parents are working. It has made many of them feel like they are neglecting their kids. As I have written, the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world pile on the guilt. This cultural argument has two effects on the parents: anger at their kids for complicating their lives, and attempts to make up for their frequent absences by overindulging their kids and trying to be friends with them.

The latter behavior creates all the issues that parenting columnist John Rosemond has been writing about for years: It makes the kids feel inadequate. My view on this is slightly different than his: I think the kids start to believe that the parents’ constant need to cater to them is proof that the parents need to be caretakers to remain mentally stable, so the children start to act as if they are inadequate so the parents can continue to feel needed.

If the parents’ anger predominates, this can also lead to acting out by the child to provide the parent with a feeling of justification for being angry and therefore not as guilt-ridden.

If the parents go back and forth between compulsive caretaking and anger, the child develops one of the major characteristics of borderline personality disorderspoiling behavior. When the parent gets too angry, the child tries (and usually succeeds at) making the parent feel guilty, but then when the parents feel too guilty, the child finds ways to make them angrier.

Because the issue of parental guilt is so central, this creates a conundrum for anyone trying to get the family to discuss what is really going on so that it can be stopped or at least minimized — including any family member attempting to do this, a therapist trying to help the family, or a blogger trying to get people to focus on real issues rather than looking for scapegoats or facile explanations for the self -defeating behavior of family members. When any of these folks bring up what the parents are doing “wrong,” this tends to make the parents feel even more guilty, which is the source of the problem in the first place. The problem then gets worse rather than better.

When I was seeing such a parent in therapy, I was able to find a way to finesse this by discussing how their child may be mis-reading them, which tends to be a less guilt-inducing way to put it. Also, I can empathize with the bind that the parents are themselves feeling, having formed a preliminary hypothesis about why their own parents acted as they did.

This is much more difficult to accomplish when writing for the public, because readers tend to quickly focus mostly on anything that seems at first glance to be less than empathic with their own plight. I do talk about how the problems have been passed down from prior generations, so if we have to blame anyone, let’s blame Adam and Eve and be done with it. I also make use of a great quote from John Rosemond: "Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing." However, I can’t discuss these ideas in detail in every single post or they would all be twice as long as this one. And anyway, disclaimers like that are often ignored in the heat of the moment.