5 ways to cope with parental guilt
Do you often feel that, as a parent, you’re struggling to find a satisfactory balance between providing for the needs of your children and caring for yourself? Does this cause feelings of guilt for you? You’re most definitely not alone! A survey of 2000 mothers by NUK found that 87% felt guilty at some point in relation to their parenting, with 21% reporting that they felt guilty most, or all, of the time. Triggers for guilt included feeling too tired or too busy or too lacking in money to give what they perceived to be the maximum attention to their children. Financial worries loomed large in surveys of both mothers and fathers, with one in four fathers in a survey of 1200 (carried out by Today.com in conjunction with Fatherly.com) having guilt in relation to the provision of money for the family. Work/life balance can be an issue for many parents in whichever family unit they live.
Common signs of parental guilt
Whether you’re the parent of a baby, a primary school child, an adolescent or even an adult, you can find yourself asking one or more of the following guilt-ridden questions in reaction to a difficulty:
- Did I contribute to this issue?
- Did I miss something?
- How can I fix this?
- What is wrong with my parenting?
The role of guilt
The existence of some guilt in parenting can be positive. It can help us gain perspective and originates from a protective place: it “…may serve to inhibit aggression, impulsive actions and neglect…” (Rotkirch and Janhunen, 2010). It can motivate us to question our parenting skills and perhaps give attention to what we need to change.
When guilt is out of control
Whatever your circumstances within your own family unit; whether you work full time, part time, stay at home, or are a single parent or within a partnership, you may suffer from guilt surrounding “doing the right thing”. But by whose standards are we measuring ourselves?
If guilt pervades every waking thought or restricts your life due to anxiety, then quite probably you’re struggling with too much guilt.
If you find that you constantly sacrifice what you need to be emotionally healthy in favour of your family’s needs, then that is unlikely to be helpful for anyone. It is the equivalent of doing the exact opposite of the actions you are advised to take on a plane in an emergency! Put on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else. This analogy is useful advice for maintaining our own emotional wellness. Keeping in touch with what we need will give us the patience and wisdom to also assist our children with emotion regulation, and less emotionally wrung out parents are great role models for a child!
Aim to minimise parental guilt
When those feelings of guilt arise, could you recognise them as a sign for self-reflection?
1. Am I trying to fix something that is a learning opportunity for my child? As an alternative to rescuing, could I guide and support?
2. Do I have unrealistically high expectations? It is not our role as parents to “make” our children happy 100% of the time. In fact, if we categorise our children’s experience of emotions as “good” or “bad” and believe that we have failed if our children are sad, upset or angry for any reason, then we could be encouraging anxious feelings in everyone concerned. Accepting that emotions are valid and finding strategies for regulating them is healthier and ultimately more helpful.
3. When is “good enough” good enough? Is maximum effort essential when parenting on a daily basis? Acknowledging that we are human and juggling life with all its complexities is useful when we need to “lower the bar” a little.
4. Where is my judgement coming from? Am I comparing myself with others on social media or within my peer group? Does that air-brushed world represent reality or am I judging myself against unachievable standards? Sometimes we can be our own most cruel critics. Would we treat our friends the way we treat ourselves? Are we able to stand back for a moment and observe the situation? Is it really as bad as we imagine it to be?
5. How am I keeping myself emotionally well? We are just as valuable and valid as our children (remember the oxygen mask?). What are we choosing to maintain our self-care? It is about acknowledging that we matter just as much as those around us; not saying “I should be first” but saying “I count too” and actively seeking to respond to this. We need to address our health, our mind, our contact with others and our enjoyment of life as both individuals and part of the family unit. Finally, it’s worth remembering that giving loving attention to our families is the most important aspect of parenting. If we can accept that we are not perfect, then that’s great! Neither is any other human being on the planet.
- NUK guilt survey - https://www.nuk.co.uk/blogs/be-guilt-free/
- Rotkirch, A. and Janhunen, K. (2010) ‘Maternal Guilt’, Evolutionary Psychology. doi: 10.1177/147470491000800108.
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About Deborah Mitchinson
I am a qualified teacher and psychotherapist with a passion for mental health matters. Through my private practice at www.resiliencecounselling.org my mission is to provide a premium service for all your emotional health and wellbeing needs.