Neurotic Parental Guilt

As a child psychologist, dad and friend of many parents, I’ve noted that neurotic guilt is common among we parents. Sometimes these feelings are mere flashes while at other times they are thematic. Of course there are situations in which experiences of guilt are not neurotic as they are helpful (e.g., situations where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child and the guilt feelings motivate change). But, here I’m thinking of instances when we engage excessive self-reproach for having human limitations or for having normative human experiences. In this entry I’ll first describe some common scenarios that evoke such quilt and then suggest seven strategies for coping with it.

The first common scenario is when there is a separation at hand:

• A child leaves for college, especially if the child leaving is the first born. (Many parents report feeling shocked at how quickly this day has arrived.)

• A parent departs for an extended period of time. This commonly happens when mom or dad serves in the military, but there are many examples of it in our run-and-gun culture (e.g., as a phase of relocating to another part of the country).

• A parent is on his or her death bed.

In these and other related situations we can be swept away with thoughts that we did not get the most out of our time with our child. We can mercilessly beat ourselves up with thoughts that we should have spent more one-on-one time, done more shared activities, communicated our love more effectively or just been a better parent. A famous quote by Kahil Gibran comes to mind “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

The second common scenario is after some positively anticipated event or period of time is over such as:

• A vacation is finished.

• A holiday period is concluded.

• A weekend is over. (I wonder what percentage of neurotic parent guilt happens on Sunday nights.)

In these and related scenarios I might kick myself for moments of conflict, boredom or disengagement. I so much looked forward to having a joyful or meaningful experience with my child. And, when reality almost inevitably falls short of my high expectations–what I refer to as the “Clark Griswold Syndrome”–I kick myself with self-reproach and feelings of guilt.

I believe at the root of neurotic parental guilt is the overwhelming and gut wrenching love that we have for our kids. It is so encapsulating and powerful, that it makes us lunatics much of the time. So, my fellow lunatic, let me suggest some antidotes for this neurotic guilt:

Strategy #1: Use what we psychologists call “coping thoughts.” Coping thoughts are true thoughts that provide comfort. Wearing a pair of jeans that are so tight that they hurt serves no purpose. So, sane people swap them out. This type of neurotic guilt serves no purpose, so we do well to swap it out. Here are some coping thoughts to try on for size:

√ “Everyone has moments of stupidity, impatience and frailty. There is no escaping my humanity.”

√ “I love my kid more than my life. It isn’t possible to love someone more than that.”

√ “I do (have done) all kinds of things for my kid such as….”

√ “Conflict and disengagement are woven into the fabric of human interactions. There is no being together, for any extended period of time, without them.”

√ “Life is not a fairy tale, it’s better. But, that comes with mess for everyone.”

Strategy #2: Imagine you are in the future and your child is a parent. He or she is now coming to you for help with the exact same type of guilt you are now experiencing. What advice would you offer your future child? If your like most, this can lead you to a more wise and kind stance with yourself. (This is also one way to get in touch with what I have referred to as your “wells of wisdom.”)

Strategy #3: If your child is still living with you, or lives close to you. Try hard to do at least one hour of “special time” each week. If you do this exercise consistently you are taking a mighty step towards promoting an effective relationship with your child. (Special time is different from quality time. To learn more about how to do it see Chapter One in my parenting book, or download this article that I wrote.)

Strategy #4: Write a gratitude letter for your child. Click here for a blog entry on the specifics of this method. This can be a most profound human experience. (Be careful not to expect reciprocation though. It’s wonderful if a letter comes back at you later, but no one is served if you experience resentment secondary to a frustrated expectation.)

Strategy #5: Apologize for any real mistakes that you made and, if it’s a pattern, try to both understand the underlying cause(s) and take steps to either improve or resolve the situation. Steps for improving could include such things as spiritual direction, psychotherapy, improving health habits and enhancing your self-care (i.e., parenting from the cross is rarely effective), and I speak as someone who has taken abundant advantage of each of these self-improvement measures.

Strategy #6: A more elaborate version of the coping thought strategy would be to make a list of your parenting strengths and successes. This could be a one-and-done exercise or a weekly effort. It is a list of things you have done, or do, well as a parent. It can also include evidence of good outcomes that your child experiences or has experienced.

Strategy #7: Get helpful feedback. My personal criteria for such a consultant is that (a) he or she is wise about parenting (i.e., by experience, by training or both), (b) he or she cares about me and (c) he or she is as likely to agree as to disagree with me (i.e., someone who is only going to agree with me is of little use for this service).

In closing, and to beat one of my most treasured and favorite drums, if you think you could benefit from speaking with a good child psychologist, pick up the phone! 😉

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