-November 5, 2019

How to cope with parental guilt and shame?

Most parents have guilt surrounding their parenting skills. Some believe they have failed if they can’t live up to being the “perfect” parent. 

According to Psychology Today’s Ann Smith, “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.”

Shame is a harder emotion to resolve. It makes a parent feel as if they are faulty and are fully responsible for something that has gone wrong in their child’s life. A lot of parents may be shamed by other parents or members of the community, often leading them to feel vulnerable, guilty and alone. In Charlie’s story, his mom is evidently concerned about sharing his story and exposing both Charlie and herself to judgement and criticism from outsiders.

In an article about Shame on fatherly.com - “Being shamed about one’s parenting skills hits at the core of the ability to perform one of the most meaningful tasks in life-raising one’s own child,” Manly says. “Shaming comments can take parents straight into the realm of believing that they are bad as individuals — rather than the truth that parenting is not a science, but a practice of learning and growing over time.”

Parent’s may feel guilt for not being present enough, not listening enough, being preoccupied with their own lives and ignoring red flags. They may also feel responsible for the violent or dysfunctional behaviour that may have played out in their homes at the hands of another parent; as was the case with Charlie’s dad in our documentary SKIDS. Divorce is also an especially big reason for a single parent to feel guilt.

Dr Neufeld, a top developmental psychologist believes it is better to keep this uncomfortable feeling of guilt in sight. He says there is the impulse to shift responsibility to someone or something else, the hunt for validation by others or the drive to be a perfect parent. He believes that taking up a relationship with guilt will help you stay connected to your own feelings and intuitions.

Guilt is a normal emotion – it may be the catalyst we need to nudge us in the right direction. When a child becomes defiant, turns to drugs or alcohol, or exhibits other behavioural issues, guilty parents may act out in various ways to cope with their pain.

Parents need to remember that if they act out emotionally, the child may internalize this and feel as if they are “hurting their parent” or are “not enough”. The issue of attachment then comes into play,  where the child feels a disconnect from their primary caregiver and may take on the “role” they feel a parent has placed them in, such as the “bad kid”. They may then act out more intensely to assume this role and may reject any offers of help. Parents often have to walk a fine line to maintain rules and boundaries, yet still show love and support.

Remember, you don’t have to be a “perfect” parent.

Realise that you will make mistakes and your children need to make their own.  It’s about acknowledging these mistakes and moving forward from them. Children are unpredictable and you need to show compassion for yourself. Love, reassurance and guidance are key. It’s also important to remember that outsiders may always have opinions about your parenting skills or your family situation, but they are not walking in your shoes. Everyone has their own cross to bear.

Realizing how important you are to this developing being means that guilt will be part of the parenting equation.

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