When I asked Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, faculty in the Psychology Department at Antioch University Santa Barbara, what is parental guilt, she laughed, “Ask a Jewish mother and you’ll know.” For most of us a moderate amount of guilt is actually a sign of love and of a strong attachment to our offspring, but when guilt gets out of hand, it is unproductive and self-defeating.
What do we feel guilty about? According to Ann Smith, Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron, the top 20 reasons parents experience remorse are:
• I wasn't there enough.
• I didn't listen.
• I was too focused on the house and work.
• I wasn't affectionate enough.
• I was critical.
• I yelled, hit, and blamed.
• I was a bad role model.
• I didn't take the time to understand my children.
• I wasn't consistent.
• I pushed too hard.
• I didn't push enough.
• I spanked.
• I drank.
• I was depressed.
• I fought with my children's dad or mom.
• I got divorced.
• I said hurtful things.
• I was selfish.
• I ignored my child.
• I didn't protect my children.
“All conscientious parents want to create the optimal childhood for their offspring,” says Dr. Wolfson, “but we find out very quickly we can’t, because the world is imperfect and we don’t get to protect our children from this. This realization is particularly hard for new parents who are high achievers. They never failed at anything, so how could they fail at this? especially when they’re trying so hard to do it not just right but perfectly.”
Dr. Wolfson advises, “You don’t have as much power as you think, which should come as a relief. There’s the influence of society, the media, other kids, and, above all, genetics. Besides, looking back, how were you to know the ingredients that would make for a ‘perfect’ childhood? You could only do your best with who you were at the time and who your children were. The good news is that, since life is full of challenges, any adversity they experience helps them learn skills that contribute to self-reliance later on.”
Of course, if your adult child is thriving, it’s easier to pat yourself on the back. If he/she is experiencing difficulties in forming relationships, holding a job or beating opioid addiction, you’re much more likely to experience self-blame. Dr. Wolfson encourages parents of adult children to take a step back and ask themselves, “Do I really have that much power?
Few of us were the Mother Theresa of parenting, meeting every one of the professional advice givers’ impossible standards. We were then and are now just people, imperfect, unpredictable, and inconsistent, Yet we are also resilient and capable of change. We can’t rewrite history, but, according to Elizabeth Wolfson, we can effect change by using our parental guilt to do things differently. Instead of wallowing in “could-a, would-a, should-a” thinking, we could try, for example, to be less controlling, softer, and more supportive.
Finally, let’s say you’ve done the work on yourself and you’re free at last of the heaviest burdens of guilt. Does that make you a less caring or worse parent? The experts say a resounding No! So for heaven’s sakes, don’t engage in what I call “raiser’s remorse.” Feeling guilt about not feeling guilty would be the ultimate irony.
Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, is faculty in the Masters of Clinical Psychology Department at Antioch University Santa Barbara. She also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in which she works with people of all ages and backgrounds. To contact Dr. Wolfson, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 805-564-6642.
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