Ways to Combat Parent Guilt

Jan 04, 2022

Guilt: A feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation. 

For many parents, this definition hits close to home as parent guilt infiltrates the space between having to discipline your child while simultaneously wanting to comfort them in their experience of big emotions.

Parents feel guilty for a variety of reasons; Some common examples include having to be out of the home for work and feeling as though their absence solidifies their inability to parent perfectly. Related, feeling as though their physical presence in the home is not enough, often resulting in a pesky & annoying self-shaming inner critique, “you should be home more”, it proclaims, “your child is going to think you don’t love them”, the inner critique continues. 

Or, the all too common bedtime guilt. Like clockwork, your little one wants to be held, needs something from you, can’t stop crying, or any other bedtime routine disruptor you can think of. The guilt parents tell me they feel during bedtime makes it hard to remain steadfast in expectations and standards of staying in bed for a proper night's sleep. 

The difficulty lies in discerning what needs to be done when, where, and how. As we know, there is no parenting manual but, there are a few guidelines or considerations to fall back on when your ability to parent slowly gives in to the culprit that is parent guilt.

Allow me to provide you with a few of those guidelines: 

  • Both effective & ineffective parenting involves discipline. The difference is that effective parenting disciplines without withdrawing love. It is possible to simultaneously uphold expectations of your child without doing so in a way that humiliates, criticizes, or shames them. So long as you aren’t doing any one or more of those three (humiliating, shaming, or criticizing), you’re in the clear.
    • Your north star is this: When disciplining, make it about the behavior- not about the child. The behavior was wrong, the child is not wrong. 
  • As guilt creeps up, remind yourself that even the most simple behavior or task as a child involves teaching contingencies and these contingencies will generalize to other areas of life as the child continues to develop from infancy, into adolescence, and finally into adulthood. 
    • For example, teaching a child that even though he/she may not necessarily enjoy having to clean up their toys, their access to an event/toy/person follows the completion of cleaning up.
    • The lesson here is that sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy doing and after we complete those unenjoyable tasks, we are able to experience the things we do enjoy. Later in life, this example parallels having to work hard perhaps to grow your business as an entrepreneur, to one day enjoy the fruits of your labor. As a young adult studying for the LSAT, this may show up as having to put in many hours of rigorous studying to enjoy the accomplishment of a score well done. 
    • The examples are endless so a reminder to yourself as a parent that teaching contingencies to children (first ______ then,_______), later equates to adults who understand contingencies.
  • The above point is closely related to the concept of delayed gratification. Our ability to remain focused, motivated, and in pursuit of a goal is exceptionally hard when that reward is not immediate. The caveat is, the level of difficulty one experiences is commensurate with their level of tolerance to delayed gratification.
  • If sleep, mealtime, or other activities of daily living that are associated with cognitive health, mental health, and physical health bring forth heavy feelings of guilt for you as a parent, remembering the impact of sleep and proper nutrition on a child's development and ability to learn can serve as a source of comfort for you as a parent if bedtime and mealtime are often accompanied by tantrums and tears.
  • Teaching your child that oftentimes in life the things we perceive as ‘no fun’ or unpreferred are the very things that allow for us to have fun in the first place. Additionally, said things help us to improve our lives and contribute to our satisfaction with life.
    • For example, as adults, we understand it's necessary to be in poor physical shape in order to enjoy activities such as hiking, canoeing, and other methods of exploration. For a child, sleep is important if they want to enjoy themselves at a friend's birthday party the next day, ballet class, or music lessons.
  • You’re not being mean, you’re being a parent, and being a parent oftentimes requires you to do and say things your child may not enjoy. This doesn’t make you a mean parent, it makes you an effective parent.
    • It’s important to consider that your child may not communicate that message to you as they shouldn’t be expected to. They are children thus, their understanding of the why and how behind parenting isn’t entirely clear. It need not be necessary that they understand, it’s only necessary that you follow through on expectations, communicate the rules and standards in a reasonable and direct manner, and respect yourself as a parent and respect your child. 
  • If your child is crying or very upset and this brings forth guilt, rather than basking in that guilt and/or ‘giving in’, show your child how to navigate what they are experiencing. In doing so, you help them to identify, label, and name their internal experience with the emotion they are feeling. This fosters self-awareness and teaches healthy expression of emotions and feelings.
    • A script could sound like: “I know you’re very upset right now with Daddy because I want for you to go to bed. That must be very upsetting and hard. It looks like you are feeling anger and that’s okay. I feel angry too sometimes when I have to do things I don’t want to do”.

Most parents do the best they can, and with no direct parenting manual to reference given no two children are the same, it’s important to remember that no two parents are the same. Parenting will look different depending upon the circumstances. When you “mess up” as a parent, as all parents will, use this as a teaching opportunity to demonstrate to your child that messing up is okay, and as we do so, it’s important to acknowledge our inadequacies and meet them with grace. My hope is that the above points support you in providing yourself that grace when you need it most.



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