How to overcome mum (and dad!) guilt and become the parent you want to be.
Grappling with parental guilt and don’t know what to do? If you’re plagued by feelings of worry every time you do something for yourself or you’re convinced you fall short as a parent, you are not alone. Most Mums, Dads and caregivers will admit to feeling guilty about some aspect of their parenting. Whether it’s in response to leaving their children to go to work, an accident that could have been prevented, losing their patience and snapping or not being able to give their children the things they’d like to – a multitude of situations can trigger these feelings.
A moderate amount of guilt can provide motivation to parent your children in the way you want, but it can be problematic if it becomes extreme. Frequent feelings of guilt can lead to self-criticism, self-doubt and low self-esteem which can conversely prevent you from being the parent you want to be.
Qualified CBT therapist and founder of Conscious and Calm coaching and support for busy parents, Navit Schechter looks at the most common causes of parental guilt and shares 5 simple strategies on how to manage this parenting phenomenon:
What is parental guilt?
Guilt is a common emotion that we all feel from time to time. As hunter-gatherers, our emotions were designed to alert us to triggers in our environment that we needed to respond to in order to stay safe and survive. Evolutionary theory suggests that the purpose of feelings of guilt was to drive us to be kind to and prevent us from harming others. This, in turn, helped us to form more beneficial relationships, thus helping us to survive.
Parental guilt often arises when our image of how we thought we’d be as a parent doesn’t match the reality.
In this modern-day world, our threats are more commonly of a psychological nature, and feelings of parenting guilt often arise when our image of how we thought we’d be as a parent doesn’t match the reality of coping with parenthood on a daily basis.
Is parental guilt a modern-day problem?
If you look back through history, it’s clear to see that the norm regarding parenting practices has changed radically. In comparison to the Victorian era, when many children were sent out to work from as young as age four, the majority of today’s generation have grown up safe, fed, educated and clothed by loving parents. The emphasis on children’s mental and emotional wellbeing however is only now being more widely recognised, alongside the understanding of the impact parenting practices can have on a child’s brain, and their emotional and social development.
However, as this is still a relatively new parenting practice, many parents are still learning. Even with a clear idea of how they would like to bring their children up in an ideal world, without role-models or previous experience, it is often hard to put this into practice consistently.
Couple this with living a busy lifestyle, in relative isolation from a wider community where help and support is freely at hand, and the fact that the number of balls parents are now juggling are reaching epic proportions, the potential for parents to not be able to meet their own expectations are much greater, contributing to the parenting guilt phenomenon.
5 ways to manage parental guilt
Feelings of parental guilt arise from the thoughts we have, about ourselves, our families or our situation. If these thoughts are biased and unreasonable such as judging ourselves unfairly or expecting the impossible from ourselves, it can lead to extreme feelings of guilt. We look at some of the most common causes of parental guilt and what you can do to combat them:
1) Taking responsibility for things we can’t control
We are biologically programmed to keep our children safe and ensure they are happy and healthy. When they experience their own challenges eg health problems, an accident, bullying, failing at school or falling out with friends many parents will blame themselves. Thoughts like “I should have prevented it from happening”, “this is my fault” or “I should have done more” will inevitably lead to intense feelings of guilt. While it’s so hard to see our children suffering, taking responsibility for things that are not in our control or we couldn’t do anything to prevent, will create unnecessary suffering.
✔️ Try this: We don’t have control over everything that happens to our children and having inflated beliefs about our own responsibility does not solve their problems. Focusing your attention instead on supporting your children when they need you and helping them to manage their own feelings will help to manage feelings of guilt. It will also give your children the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity themselves and give them confidence in their ability to do so.
2) Having overly-high standards
Growing up in a nuclear family, many parents had little or no previous experience of child-rearing and what it involved before becoming parents for the first time. The idea of the parent you thought you’d be and the life you’d create for your family may therefore not match your current reality. Perhaps you want to spend more time with your children but have to work, want to buy them what they ask for but can’t afford to or wish that you could play with them more but feel too tired or don’t enjoy it. If you hold yourself to overly-high standards such as “the house should always be clean”, “I have to always give my children what they need”, “I should always enjoy playing with them” or “I should be doing more with the children” then, when this isn’t possible, it will inevitably lead to feelings of guilt.
✔️ Try this: Becoming more flexible with the standards that you place on yourself, aiming for “good enough” rather than perfection and recognising that it’s not possible to be all things to all people will help to manage these feelings of guilt. This will allow you to aim to give your children the life that you want and be the parent you want to be while also being accepting of the times that you’re not able to.
3) All-or-nothing thinking
Many parents fall into the habit of judging themselves and their parenting ability in black/white or all/nothing terms. Focusing only on their limitations; what they haven’t achieved; what’s not going well or the mistakes they’ve made rather than the times that they have given their children what they needed or all the things that they do each day that make their children feel safe, loved and taken care of. This can lead parents to believe that they are not good enough or are inadequate as well as thoughts such as “I’m ruining my child” or “he/she’s going to suffer in later life because of me” which will lead to excessive feelings of guilt alongside other negative emotions.
✔️ Try this: Paying attention to your strengths, what you have achieved and what you are able to do for your children, in addition to your limitations and what you haven’t, will help you to develop a more balanced perspective of yourself and your parenting, reducing feelings of guilt.
4) Recognising your limits
Many parents so desperately want their children to have the best start in life that they believe their children’s needs must always come first, no matter what the cost. This can cause feelings of guilt on the occasions when this is not possible, such as when needing to return to work, take time out to recharge or simply having to say “no”. It can also make it difficult for many parents to find the balance between living a life that is personally rich and rewarding while also giving their children what they want to give them.
✔️ Try this: Identifying and fulfilling your own needs will enable you to feel happy and fulfilled, making it easier for you to be the parent you want to be, therefore benefiting your children too. While it may feel good to put your children’s needs first a lot of the time, there will always be times when this is not possible and accepting this inevitable reality can help to manage feelings of guilt. It will also give your children the experience of not always getting what they want or need and the opportunity for learning how to cope with this when they’re still young.
5) Making comparisons
If you are doubting your parenting abilities, questioning whether you are giving your children what they need or feeling insecure about yourself as a parent, it’s easy to look to others to see how they are doing and to make sure you’re getting it right. This is a natural human response however many common parenting challenges are not openly talked about, such as not enjoying your child’s company or losing your temper at the children. Making true comparisons is largely impossible and can leave you feeling like you’re not doing as well as other parents and creating feelings of guilt.
✔️ Try this: Focus instead on your own strengths, connect with other parents who are open about their parenting struggles and focus on your connection with your child. This will improve your parenting confidence and manage these feelings of guilt. As your children grow up, they will remember the general way that they felt when they were with you, not the occasional times that were more difficult or the things you were able to buy them.
Modelling self-compassion, self-care, flexibility in your standards and a balanced perspective will not only help you to manage your own feelings of guilt, it will show your children that we’re not perfect, and nor is life, which will in turn make it easier for them to deal with their own imperfections and struggles in the future.
Further help and support
For additional support with any aspect of parenting, try one of the following resources:
- Conscious and Calm: support for busy parents who want to take care of themselves so they can be the parents they want to be.
- NSPCC: parenting tips for all stages of your child’s life.
- The Samaritans: charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- YoungMinds: committed to children’s wellbeing and mental health.
- Care for the family: helping parents thrive and survive.