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Mothers, You Did Not Cause Your Child's Problems

Your child's behavior is not your report card.

Key points

  • Many mothers feel guilt over their children’s behavior, but they can only aim to influence their child and cannot control the outcome.
  • Some kids have special vulnerabilities and sensitivities from the time they are very young.
  • The right amount of "good guilt,” however, can help parents to seek the advice and support they need.

To all the mothers out there who are feeling guilty, inadequate, and self-doubting, let me say this: You are incredibly important in family life. You are also far less powerful than you think. You can aim to influence your child but you cannot control the outcome. There are countless forces beyond your control that affect how your child behaves and how that child "turns out." This is true whether your child is 4 or 40.

As an expert on families, I know this to be true. A particular mother can behave badly, even abominably. But she cannot unilaterally cause her child to become suicidal, schizophrenic, antisocial, or otherwise sick. Nor can she make her child shoplift, get a migraine, punch someone in the nose, or get straight A’s, for that matter.

While we can work to control and change our behavior, we can never control our child’s behavior, or the environment, or the larger world they live in. Nor do we control the cosmic toss of the genetic dice. Some kids have special vulnerabilities and sensitivities from the time they are very young.

Psychologist Ron Taffel, author of Parenting by Heart, is an expert on “difficult kids.” He describes children who do not hug, kiss, connect, or “give back” the love they are given; children who have self-regulatory problems and can’t stop themselves from screaming, being defiant, or losing control; children who can’t handle transitions because their attention is so rigidly focused that adults can’t break them out of their attentional mode to help them move on; children who have “sensory defensiveness,” meaning they can’t regulate strong stimuli coming their way. I could make a much longer list.

As Taffel puts it, feeling guilty and responsible for your child's problems makes about as much sense as feeling guilty that your daughter is the only kid in her class who can’t see the blackboard without eyeglasses.

Of course, feeling a stab of guilt can serve a positive purpose. All parents make mistakes and take positions that are too distant or too intense. The right amount of "good guilt" can help you to seek the advice and support you need and to change your behavior in a positive way. We obviously need to observe and change our part in a problem or pattern that negatively affects our children.

That said, the process of reflection, self-evaluation, and change is essentially a self-loving task that will not flourish in an atmosphere of judgment and blame. Mothers are the most vulnerable family members when it comes to the false belief that we can control our children when it's difficult enough to control or our own selves.

Whether your child is 5 or 50, consider repeating as a mantra: “I am responsible for my own behavior; I am not responsible for my child’s behavior.”

This means you do as good a job as you can and let go of the false belief that you can control who your child is or how your child thinks, feels, and behaves. On some days, you may deserve a shiny medal just for getting through the day.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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