One thing that all parents have in common is that at some stage of their life they will experience GUILT.
● Guilt about what they’ve done or not done
● Guilt about what they’ve said or not said
● Guilt about what they think about doing or saying
● Even guilt over what their kids have done and said, not done or achieved etc. through feeling that they are responsible for their children’s behaviours, emotions or failures.
What does parenting guilt look like?
It’s the feeling of having done something wrong that might have had a negative impact on our child here and now or in the future. Or when feeling torn between our responsibilities as a parent and something else that is competing for our attention i.e. work, our personal interests, divorce or just life admin. Often it’s a feeling of not being good enough, feeling inadequate at our job as parents or questioning the choices we have made that affect our child’s wellbeing and future.
Why is parenting guilt bad for us and our child?
When we parent our child out of guilt or fear, rather than doing what is right or best for them, we are in danger of rewarding the wrong behaviour in order to compensate or make ourselves feel better.
When we do this we run the risk of encouraging manipulation behaviours. Our children are clever scientists; always on the lookout to get what they want, get out of what they don’t want and will quickly tune into any weak point, and GUILT is a great target for them! For instance if you have screamed at them or worked really long hours etc. you feel bad and will do anything to shake that guilty feeling and make the moment or your connection better. And your child knows how to get what they want by playing on that guilt.
And when parenting through a divorce parental guilt can REALLY pile on.
So, it’s even more important to become aware of our guilt and understand what to do with it so it doesn’t affect the way we parent and how our kids develop, or how they later look back at time of the divorce.
Claire Macklin (divorce coach) mentioned that divorced parents often struggle with additional guilt such as:
• Guilt that they have broken up the family
• Guilt that the children will be damaged by growing up in a “broken home”
• Guilt that they have ‘ruined/destroyed’ their children’s lives
• Guilt that they didn’t leave earlier (in some cases)
• Guilt that their children now have to live between two homes
• Guilt that they didn’t choose a better partner or other parent for their children
So let us help you manage this guilt so you can live a freer life and raise healthy resilient kids.
Challenging your parenting guilt
1. Identify the triggers to this guilt. What areas make you feel guilty? Be really honest with yourself here – don’t shy away.
2. Then ask yourself: ‘how does this guilt affect the way I parent? Perhaps you:
• Do too much for them?
• Allow them to get away with more screen time, eat too many sweets and junk food etc.
• Give them too much, i.e. mobile phones and tech devices, toys, money etc.
• Or worse, say YES when you mean NO, knowing that your child’s request should not be granted, but you say YES out of guilt.
Unfortunately, these response behaviours from you can often make you feel MORE guilty – as deep down you know you are sometimes not doing the best thing for your child during this difficult time. And of course, we are then in danger of creating ‘manipulation behaviours’.
How to tackle your guilt
Let’s start with is your guilt helpful or unhelpful guilt?
• Helpful: when you have done something that you know was a mistake, or wrong, and that you could make amends for i.e. did you talk badly about your ex to the kids, knowing it is wrong? Did you tell too much of the reason why are getting divorced, knowing that kids don’t need the full story? Have you screamed at your child? Have you maybe not been so available (both physically and mentally)? etc. If this is you then read the part about how you can become aware of this, learn from it and do something different in order to move on and away from this feeling of guilt.
• Unhelpful guilt: when you are just beating yourself up but have actually done nothing wrong – nothing to feel guilty about, so the only purpose the guilt serves is to make you feel bad. I.e. parent who felt guilt about being the one leaving the marriage. But she was a good parent and it was the right thing to do, since the relationship with ex was toxic. If this is you, then keep reading…
1. Don’t compare yourself to others:
● It might be that when you look around it looks like everyone is looking so happy, doing well and has a perfect family life. Maybe they do, and good for them. But most likely they have their issues as well. And remember, all our kids are unique so what works for others might not work for you, your values, your child or your family set-up.
● Social media: don’t think that everything you see on social media is the full story, people aren’t posting about the times they lost their temper, screamed at their child, felt bad over the life they live etc.
2. Be compassionate to yourself
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have available. As you go through a separation, you’re probably feeling a wide range of emotions yourself. You’ll have good days and bad. There will be times you cope better than others. This is normal. Your children too will have good days and bad – the best thing you can do is to listen, acknowledge and validate BOTH your feelings and theirs. Be kind to yourself.
3. Be clear what kind of parent you want to be, on your time
It might feel like everything is overwhelming and out of your control. One thing that is totally within your control is to be the parent you want to be when you are with your children. Think about how you want to parent on your time with your children. Focus on being the best parent you can be. Keep that vision in the forefront of your mind. Let go of trying to influence or control what sort of parent your ex is on their time and focus just on you.
● Also, we know how easy it is to get into a negative spiral but that is not helpful and can actually make the guilt worse. So remind yourself, ‘we can never get it totally right and become the perfect parent who raises perfect kids’. After all we are just humans, and humans make mistakes. I can only do my best and that is good enough. What is done in love IS done well. I AM doing my best (if you feel you aren’t then you will benefit from the last activity).
● I am not alone with these feelings: remind yourself that most parents at some stage will feel guilty and that they are not good enough. So you are not alone feeling this way – it comes with the job! No one said that parenting was going to be easy.
● Put things in perspective: feeling guilt doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. For example, if you are feeling guilty about leaving the family home, your partner – put it in perspective and think that maybe there is a silver lining, and it is not all bad:
o What can I do now that I couldn’t do before? Perhaps you are now free to parent in the way you always wanted to. Perhaps you are now free to spend every Saturday morning with your child playing football.
o If there was one good thing about this, what would it be? Perhaps your children no longer have to hear you and your ex arguing, or maybe you can make a mess now with paints and glue without your partner complaining.
o Where would it be most helpful for me to put my focus? E.g focus on what you can do in the time you are with your children – ask them what they enjoy doing, plan activities into your diaries that you all enjoy, and focus on the time you do have together.
● Do it your way: there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of parenting through a divorce. There is only the way that works for you, your values, your individual child and your unique family life and set-up. Right now you are living this family life so make it work for you and get the most out of it. Be the best parent you can with what you have and where you are. Claire offers these mantras to parents that will help them staying on the right track when parenting through divorce:
o Keep the kids in the centre, not in the middle: keep the children out of conflict between you – separate your ex’s role as your ex, and as your fellow parent.
o Kids first, ego last: when you feel angry/frustrated by something your ex says or does, remember the children are both of yours – you once loved this person enough to have a child with them. Being caught in conflict between you is the most damaging thing for your children to experience. Ask yourself whether you want your children to experience a child centred separation or a separation centred childhood…
o Your children will follow your lead: the way in which you handle this period of time will influence how your children see and respond to it. When you show them a parent who is calm, considered and dignified, they will learn from you.
4. Remind yourself of all the great stuff that you are also responsible for:
● You are doing better than you might think: yes we are good at taking the blame for so many negative things but we need to also start taking the ‘blame’ when it comes to all the good stuff in our kids’ lives. Their successes, the great moments, the life experiences that you give them, the unconditional love and so on. I am not saying that you should take the credit for all your kids’ successes and achievements – but you can pat yourself on the back and think, ‘maybe, just maybe, I helped them in the right direction, to get there, make the right choices’ etc. I am sure that my kids’ good grades and skills are down to their own hard work, personalities and abilities – BUT I was behind them all the way. I encouraged their study hours and made sure they had a nice study environment. Cooked them healthy meals. Made sure we were connected while living a global life – I was the glue that held it all together and shaped our family life, so yes, I am happy to take some of the blame there!
● What can you be proud of as a parent? What HAVE you done well – what are you doing OK? Remind yourself of these things every day, and every time parenting guilt is about to eat you up and make you do or say the wrong thing.
● Practise self-compassion and praise: every day say to yourself what you HAVE done right. Every time you are about to beat yourself up, STOP, BREATHE and remind yourself of ALL the good things you are also to be blamed for.
5. Can you learn and do it differently next time?
Awareness of our ‘maybe’ wrong doing – where guilt is valid or helpful: we are not perfect and maybe we have done some things that are not OK and we need to apologise and think about how we can do it differently in the future. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are willing to admit them, apologise (if need be), and learn from them.
By managing parenting guilt, you can eliminate that from your list of challenges in your life and will find that you are calmer and more connected to your children and kinder to yourself. You can be kind to yourself and forgive yourself when needed. And learn to be the parent that your children need, right now.
Best wishes from
Created by Mette & Claire (parenting & divorce coaches)
Mette Theilmann, Parenting Consultant from Predictable Parenting
Claire Macklin from Claire Macklin Divorce Coaching – www.clairemacklincoaching.com