Dena Kouremetis

Psychology Today

The Gift That Keeps on Giving: Coping with Parental Guilt

“Sometimes I just want to paint the words ‘It's my fault’ across my forehead to save people the time of being pissed off at me.” ― Christina Westover

It happens. In fact, if you are a mom, it happens quite regularly: feeling guilt over not being the kind of parent you’d hoped to be, 20/20 hindsight regarding what you could have done differently, and a fear that you may have already inflicted enough damage on your nearly-or-fully-grown child that he or she will be forever frequenting a therapist’s office. 

For some, the rhetorical questions never seem to go away, it seems. Even when your child was an infant, could you have (1) tried harder to feed her healthier, organic food even though she kept turning her nose up at anything but rice pudding and sweet potatoes out of jar? (2) NOT placed her in front of a continuous loop video of The Little Mermaid when you wanted a break from mothering? (3) read her more books in addition to the same ten you read to her every night? (4) shielded her from marital conflicts? (5) picked her up more often when she cried? (6) offered more constructive advice instead of impulsively criticized?

The list can go on and on. Add to that the guilt you carry over to your school-age-child-turned-teen-turned-young-adult, and it’s a recipe for a few mood-altering pills or a stiff drink.

So why do we DO this to ourselves, as if we can have complete control over everything our children can possibly experience in their early lives, including our own lack of parenting skills? Oh God. Could it have been possible to attend weekly classes on parenting to avoid all this? Do you think our own mothers felt the same, and if they did, did they beat themselves up over it the way we do now?

The fact is, most parents have regrets. It’s a matter of not permitting ourselves to be controlled by those regrets, chalking them up to lack of knowledge or maturity, and moving on as we continue to alter our behavior.  It's my personal opinion that guilt-ridden parents often make better grandparents because of all they learned (and regretted) along the way. And there is always that element that grandparents get to hand back the grandkids after they've spoiled them mercilessly, so they don't have to deal with the everyday tantrums and prepubescent eye-rolling any more. The Natural Child Project’s Robin Grille offers the following in her piece Parental Guilt: A Silent Epidemic:

“Parents everywhere agonize in secret: 'Where did I go wrong? Will my child be damaged because of what I did, or because of what I failed to do?' To make matters worse, these days there is so much more information out there about what babies and children need; we have doubled the fodder for self-recrimination. Gone are the ancestral days when a casual attitude to children's feelings left our forebears largely untroubled by what happens to a child.”

Although my daughter is now in her 30s, I recall, when seeing a therapist about her ADHD-related misbehaviors at school, the three of us – dad, mom and child – had been asked to take a test the therapist offered us. It was designed to measure anxietylevels to get to the bottom of whose off-the-charts worries may be contributing to the issues at hand. Of course, because my daughter’s teachers repeatedly used the word “anxious” when speaking of her, I assumed she would get the highest score on this test. But I was wrong. I could have gotten a blue ribbon for anxiety at the time. The therapist offered me wisdom on how to refocus my energies – something I have never forgotten but continue to struggle with.

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Psychology Today contributor Ann Smith lists the top 20 things parents offer regrets about in her article, Are You a Guilty Parent? Among them:

  • not being there enough 
  • not listening 
  • being too focused on the house and/or work 
  • not being affectionate enough 
  • being too critical 
  • yelling, hitting, blaming 
  • being a bad role model 
  • not taking the time to understand their child/children.. 
  • not being consistent
  • pushing too hard 
  • not pushing hard enough. 

It's easy to see how we beat ourselves up. But you can also take heart in Smith’s reassurances:

“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.”

So is it abnormal to carry this burden around with us even after our kids are grown, and is it possible to cut ourselves some slack? No to the first point and yes to the second one. We would not be labeled clinically neurotic over this and we CAN be kinder to ourselves.

Another PT contributor, Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, in his blog post, Adolescence, parental disappointment, and parental guilt, admits:

“It's easy for parents to feel implicated in their grown child's travails when they believe there is a connection to be drawn between parental conduct in the past and adult child behavior in the present. The more deeply implicated parents feel in their child's lasting hardships based on earlier hurts that they caused, the more susceptible to guilt they tend to be.”

Showing regret for past behaviors can often be a process, and while simply changing those behaviors might be enough to show those we love what is in our hearts, Pickhardt offers the following steps to deal with this “damage” we believe we inflicted on our kids.  Keep in mind, some of us may have to do this repeatedly to assuage the guilt we feel and for some, it might feel as if we are offering this up too late.  Personally, however, I feel it’s never too late to say what you feel:

(1) Declare culpability.
(2) Express honest sorrow and commit not to acting that way again.
(3) Make appropriate amends, such as asking forgiveness.
(4) Most importantly, forgive yourself.

Jessica Kausen