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The millstone of parental Guilt by Joanna Lloyd-Baker

Guilt is a strange beast.  I see it frequently in my counselling room, and recognise it in my own personal makeup but parental guilt is capable of escalating to another level.  

We all recognise that guilty feeling, we have all shared that sense that we should have done something differently, that our actions or words have caused harm to others but what happens when those “others” are our children.  I find myself sitting on the metaphorical “naughty step” too often worrying about a parental failing but the punishment isn’t the “time-out”, its the guilt, that deep rooted emotion that gnaws away.

Defining guilt is not always easy, but most definitions seem to share a few common traits:

  1. That the individual holds a sense of responsibility
  2. That the individual has somehow failed or breached in that responsibility (perceived or real)
  3. As a result of that failure damage has been done to another person

Our sense of responsibility and depth of guilty feeling seem directly proportional and it is for this reason I think parental guilt can sit so heavily.  The reality is that when our children are born they are 100% reliant on us for their needs; feeding, comfort, warmth, hygiene.  As frazzled new parents we take on this role and commit to achieving an A*, the 100% performance grade.  I struggle to think where else in life this perfect grade, and only this perfect grade, will do.  If I took an exam in any other area and scored 80% I would be delighted.  

So what happens when our performance drops below the A*, when the nappy stays on too long, or feeding time gets pushed back by 15 minutes and then tears and tantrums follow (often ours as well as the babies) and suddenly we have ticked the three criteria that define guilt and we are left feeling “less than”, inadequate and inherently bad.

The evolution of children, the learning curve that follows their growth doesn’t help with this parental guilt because the truth is we do start with 100% responsibility.  I felt it ingrained in me in the most intuitive way, my children as newborns depended on me for their very existence ….. but as they grew and their dependence lessened I was unable to reduce my sense of responsibility in proportion, I was always behind the curve and this “responsibility lag” fed straight into my guilt.  I believe this is why parental guilt stays with us, it mirrors each stage of childhood development and just as we think we have a grip on where we are at, what the boundaries are and what is expected of us our children have whisked off to a new level and once again we are playing catch up.

Some people are more likely to feel the pressure of guilt, those with more sensitive dispositions and who tend to put others needs before their own.  Those who feel the weight of responsibility more acutely are more likely to judge themselves harshly and perceive a failure of parental responsibility (remembering it can be imagined, it doesn’t actually have to have occurred).

So how do we deal with parental guilt?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a quick solution (if you know one please do share it) but I have found in working with parents that some of the following do help:

  1. Ask for help and support from friends, family, online forums and professionals if needed.
  2. Learn to be gentle with yourself by switching off the critical internal chatter.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) can be great at changing the self dialogue to be more positive.  Breath-work, meditation or anything that gets you out of your current headspace, can be beneficial to quiet the mind.
  3. Never compare yourself to other parents – they might appear to have it all sorted – they really haven’t, every family is finding their way
  4. Remember to pat yourself on the back at regular intervals, being a parent is tough and you are doing great!!!

Parenting is a privilege, no two families are the same, we live in a fabulous society made up of glorious blended families, each with their own challenges.  Learn to celebrate the uniqueness of your own family and in doing so acknowledge that the day will never come when we can sit back and say “well I did that perfectly”, but understand as a parent, that goes with the territory!!!

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