When You’re Haunted by Guilt for Hurting Your Children

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Nothing tugs at the heartstrings of parents more than knowing that our children are suffering from ways we’ve harmed them. Such awareness may feel unbearable for any of us to endure. Most of us would rather deny the full extent of how we’ve affected our children if we want to live with any sense of peace.

In reaction to our failings, we may withdraw from our children altogether for fear of harming them further or we may stay involved and overindulge our children in a vain hidden attempt to atone for past wrongs. Although people may reassure us that we were not the world’s worst parents, often the specter of guilt looms over us like ghosts refusing to go away. Certainly there aren’t parents alive who don’t blame themselves for shortchanging their children in some way. Most of us have healthy doses of unrealistic guilt. We make ourselves excessively responsible for our children’s behaviors. However, eventually we realize as our kids are turning out reasonably well that we’ve not been utter failures as parents. We may even surprise ourselves sometimes with how goodhearted and successful our kids really are. Such experiences elate us and confirm our normalcy. However, for parents who have actually harmed their children, it’s a whole different can of worms. Indeed, when struck by guilt, their whole world may come to a screeching halt. They may pretend to others that life is moving on but inside themselves they may be stuck in a private hell.

Although realistic guilt is very healthy, none of us deserves to remain in unending anguish for our past failings. No one benefits from it, although those whom we have harmed may wish us such experiences. In fact, if parents who do bad things to their children can’t find a way to lessen their guilt, we’ve all in trouble. We all have things we regret doing that demand our forgiveness. This thought is encapsulated in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” However, such deliverance requires daily effort. God helps those who help themselves. To begin the healing journey I invite you to honestly examine how unresolved guilt affects your whole life and the lives of your loved ones. What we see, we can forgive.

The impact of unresolved parental guilt

The way we manage guilt is more important than what we are guilty about.When regrets about our past behaviors interfere with our identities and our ability to be emotionally available in relationships we are said to have unresolved guilt. When parents harm their children it would be preferable to have some moderate lifelong guilt that doesn’t impede their functioning and sense of self. None of us ever completely absolves ourselves from hurting our children nor do we need to. Unfortunately, with excessive guilt we may hold back from actually getting close to our loved ones today as we may feel we don’t deserve their love or we may be scared of hurting them again and don’t want to risk being intimately close to our children. Some absentee fathers for example may not see their children after a divorce because they feel they have already blown it and may rationalize their absence by claiming that the children’s mother is really the superior parent. Unfortunately such beliefs are further damaging to the children as they feel they’re not getting their father’s attention is really about their own unlovability. Moms are expected to love kids but dad’s absence may really predispose children to low self-esteem and self-doubt. The very methods in which we manage unresolved guilt can do more damage than the original transgression.

Parents who decide to be involved with children may overdo it when it comes to being a parent. They may become permissive, indulgent, and tolerate misbehavior in their children all in the name of making up to the children what was originally taken from them by the parent’s first failings. Mothers who have difficulty bonding with their infants perhaps due to their ill preparation for motherhood may see the effects later in their youngsters and be prone to an indulgent style with kids. Women who are told that motherhood should come to them like ducks to water may feel especially ashamed of themselves when they feel they are over their heads with their newborns and may get postpartum depression. Unfortunately giving children whatever they want doesn’t lessen this haunting guilt and instead undermines the children’s emerging sense of self and emotional competence. Unresolved guilt filters throughout the family as loved ones intuit that mom or dad is not fully present to them. The way we manage guilt is more important than what we are guilty about.

See also  Forgiving Yourself When Your Children Suffer

Seeing your failings in a whole new light

There are no magic words that can completely absolve us of parental guilt when we have harmed our children. However there is much we can do to not hate ourselves so much for merely having limitations. We can see ourselves in a more forgiving context. Just the fact that we feel guilt at all is a good sign. Regretting how we hurt family members signals our sincere caring for loved ones. If we didn’t love, we wouldn’t have guilt. Let’s not exaggerate our failings. Keep in mind that not all of our children’s difficulties are due to our short-changing them. Our children make choices independent of how we treat them which affect the quality of their lives. Other adults and peers strongly affect how our children navigate life challenges. We are not solely responsible for how our children turn out. Some of us guilty parents may have tunnel vision when it comes to our kids and overemphasize our own transgressions. We may not realize that their genetics and temperament account for 30 to 50 percent of their personality. The whole world does not revolve around our imperfections. Our children themselves play a part in their life adjustments over which we have no control.

Many of us guilty parents may brush off such scientific explanations. We may say, “No, it really was my fault. You can’t talk me out of my guilt.” Well, perhaps I can’t. Consider what might happen if you were more self-forgiving. You would certainly hold yourself accountable but also might see the bigger picture in your life. You might see that blaming yourself is an old habit, one you learned in your family growing up. If you decided to hate yourself less for hurting your children you might hold your own family more responsible for how you were raised and taught you to parent today. Perhaps in seeing the mayhem and neglect in your own family growing up you might not be so surprised that you’ve harmed your own children the same way you were harmed. However you may not want to see serious limitations in your own family growing up. You may blame yourself as if you failed all on your own. So many of us would rather sacrifice our own well-being in the name of love. We may be reluctant to give up self-blame.

Finally, let us realize that none of us is beyond forgiveness. There’s lots we can do today to move on with more positive relationships with our children if we are willing to completely own how we have harmed them. Our children are often more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves. Stepping up to the plate today by being emotionally involved and firm with our children, perhaps with the help of some compassionate mentoring, is often the best way to forgive ourselves. When we move beyond our pasts we heal them.

See also  The Gift of Self-Forgiveness

Our culture of shame and blame

Our consumer-driven, technologically obsessed society has little patience for the complexity of human relationships. American culture overemphasizes knowing and certainty at the expense of humility and compassion. Thus mothers who cannot silence their disruptive toddlers at the supermarket are immediately judged as inept and overindulgent. Few of use may see such moms as making strategic choices based on how overwhelmed and isolated they rest of their lives are. Few of us may offer to help such mothers or distract their toddlers.

Fathers also may be stereotyped. Those who are absent to their children after a divorce are often written off as deadbeat dads. After all what can you expect from men? While some men don’t care about their children, most do more than any of us know. Few of us may realize that such divorced dads may have had their hearts torn out by the divorce process itself that separated them from their children. Their passion to see their children may be continually disrupted by denied visitation and access to their children, even when they are current with child support payments.

Fathers are often seen as second class parents and may blame themselves extensively for neglecting their kids. Worse yet, many absentee dads are prone to seeing themselves as being unimportant to their children. Too many already guilty parents are forced to pile on more self-recrimination simply because of our culture of shame and blame.

Steps toward forgiveness

If you are an overguilty parent who has harmed your children, realize you have a choice to make. You can either see yourself as a bad person for the rest of your life and use such self-hatred as an excuse for living in the past and avoiding authentic connections with your children.

It doesn’t matter who doesn’t forgive us. It only matters if we can forgive ourselves.Or you can live in the present, fully acknowledge the extent and impact of your hurtful behavior, and learn new ways to parent more effectively. Just the decision alone to be fully honest and compassionate towards yourself as a parent can in itself lighten your load and bring hope and joy in being a parent.

It doesn’t matter who doesn’t forgive us. It only matters if we can forgive ourselves. You may decide to be more honest with your own parents and those who choose to keep you stuck in guilt and shame.

Read Growing Up Again by Jean Illsley Clark and Connie Dawson. You may have to learn many of the nitty-gritty’s of parenting itself. How to deal with teenagers is a world away from interacting with younger children. Read Your Child’s Self-Esteem by Dorothy Corkville Briggs.

It’s vital to grasp that not only do you need to let yourself off the hook for being the worst parent in the world, but your children need that even more than you do. They yearn for a parent with a full heart and one they cannot exploit.

Don’t expect them to fully embrace you at first but don’t give up on trying with them. Your willingness to apply this article to your own life speaks for itself and is a courageous first step.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a commission if you purchase through the links in this article – at no cost to you.

Last Updated on October 8, 2021

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