Tag Guilt

To Err is to Parent

working momThis week I’ve had a lot of parental guilt crossing my path. So, I thought I’d encourage us all to reflect  on that and a few related issues. .

I believe that all of we engaged parents are crazy people, which is why I prefer the term parent-lunatic to parent. We love our kids SO, SO much that it hurts sometimes. We want only the best for them and often (and sometimes without thinking about it) hold ourselves 100% accountable for their happiness and success. But, inevitably we run into obstacles. Here are six common ones:

1. Research suggests that we are not sculptures of our kid’s personality but are shepherds. Much of who s/he is depends upon the spin of the genetic roulette wheel. This regards things like his or her temperament and vulnerability to physical and mental illnesses. (Temperament refers to biologically based personality attributes that, among other things, heavily influence our kid’s capacity to experience happiness.)

2. Research indicates that over 90% of kids will suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem by adulthood.

3. Secondary to inevitable statistical realities, our kids end up sucking at some important stuff. When they do it hurts them and us (I speculate us worse).teen rolling eyes

4. Getting into conflicts with us is an inevitable part of healthy trajectory to adulthood. Sometimes these conflicts can be sustained and quite wearisome (e.g., my 17 year-old refers to me as a “micromanager”…by the way, there is a t-shirt that we micromanagers can acquire. Just click here).

5. Other adults have a great deal of influence on our kid’s outcomes. And, like all humans, sometimes they do a poor job at it (e.g., I recently had the experience of having a group of teachers acknowledge that it wasn’t possible for kids to do three things in their high school:  a. do a quality job on homework, b. have one extracurricular activity and c. get the amount of sleep that science indicates a teen brain needs).

6. We screw up a ton, including those of us who have authored an award winning parenting book 😉 It is just the nature of being one of these human creatures.

If we embrace being over responsibility for our kid’s outcomes these are some of the results that can occur:

woman's face in hands• We feel excessive guilt and shame. (I say “excessive,” in that appropriately dosed guilt can be useful for correcting things that warrant such.) Excessive guilt leaves us taking responsibility for that which is outside our control and/or beating ourselves up to no good purpose. Certainly our kids are not served when we go toxic on ourselves.

• Denying our kid’s pain. Because we hurt so much when our kid hurts, it can be so easy to deny his or her pain. Indeed, our research suggests that we parents often miss the boat when it comes to recognizing our kid’s internalizing symptoms (e.g., depression and anxiety). Of course, denial interferes with forming helpful remedial plans (e.g., pursuing helpful mental health services).

• Not providing sufficient psychological space for our kids to experience failure. Like the previous point, this vulnerability is fueled by our crazy love for our kid. But because we hurt so much s/he fails, it’s so, so easy to either try to recast the failure as not being a failure (e.g., somebody cheated my kid) or to try to rush past the pain to Pollyannaish statements. The path to wise and helpful reassurances lies through the pain; trying to rush past it, or do an end run around it, dampens our ability to be helpful.

• Turning to our kid for reassurances to quell our parental guilt or insecurity. We can sometimes look to our kid to make statements that we hope can act as a healing ointment for our psychological wounds. However, doing so can put undue pressure on our kid and feel very uncomfortable and weird to him or her.

Here are seven (hopefully) helpful antidotes for excessive parental guilt or shame:

1. Do an hour a week of special time with each of your children that live with you. Click here for a free download on how to do this exercise, or read Chapter One in my book for a more complete account.

2. Meditate on your parenting successes: moments when you were selfless, working momtimes when you made an altruistic decision in service of your kid’s wellness, moments when you skillfully applied wisdom and insight to your kid’s benefit and so forth. Evaluate yourself as you would have your child evaluate his or her parental effectiveness in the future should s/he become a parent (that is after you enjoy images of your prospective grandchildren torturing your child).

3. Meditate on your kids’ successes: s/he got the well-deserved award or recognition, s/he got that important high grade, s/he carried the team to an important victory and so forth.

4. Credit yourself for being able and willing to have such a crazy love for another person. Is there a higher expression of our humanity than love? Is there a purer or truer form of love than that manifested by an engaged parent? Well then, kudos to you!

happy latino couple5. Share your insecurities or doubts with another kind, wise and experienced parent. That person may help you to get relief from irrational thoughts and give you a little air under your wings.

6. Review home movies or pictures. Gosh, we spend so much time and energy creating these suckers. We all do well to pause and actually enjoy them, preferably with our family.

7. If your kid is hurting in some sustained way, seek out the services of a lean-mean-healing machine. For a referral, click here.

In closing I’ll share that, to me, parenting, with all of it’s bumbling and stumbling, is living art and that you, when you do your best by your child, are a beauteous beauty. I hope you can give yourself that from time to time, even if you’re a micromanager like me 😉

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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