Healing Parental Guilt

Parent with children / Photo by Kateryna Hliznitsova / Unsplash

I’ve never been a woman who just couldn’t live without having kids. In fact, when Bob approached me after two years of married life and said he wanted kids, I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready.

I said first he would have to save for a trust fund for all the therapy our kids will need after they’ve grown up. I was certain that I would screw up their lives based on the horrors from my own growing up. We laughed, threw caution to the wind and had three children together. Raising kids wasn’t easy and we weren’t perfect.

Today we both love our children immensely, but there are problems. Two of them are divorced, one has an alcohol problem, and they all make hit and miss connections with us. We never see enough of them or our grand kids. Our hearts ache for our kids.

Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself, “Where did we go wrong?” Bob gets sick of my guilt, and I hate to bring him down. So I keep my feelings to myself. Silently I wonder, “Was it because I never wanted kids in the first place? Did we give our kids too little or too much? Should I have stayed home more with the kids?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mother and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. But I have this hole in my heart that just never seems to mend. What’s a mother to do?

Parental guilt is the bane of child rearing. It’s the universal reaction we moms and dads all have to doing an imperfect job with our children.

Raising children is always an imperfect job. If we didn’t love our children so much, we probably wouldn’t feel so guilty about how they turned out. Indeed, when we witness problems in our children we often suffer along with them. Yet we have no control on changing how such problems are handled today.

Today our children would likely be the first to forgive us for our limitations as parents. If only we could do the same for ourselves.Some parents have let our children down in rather tangible ways and have reason for regret. More commonly, many of us parents have done an acceptable job in raising our children and we can’t atone enough for how our children struggle today.

Even in our current dealings with our children we may overdo giving them things to cover up our guilt. We hope they don’t need to remember how we imagined to have let them down. Ah, but they don’t need to remember: We do a much better job of remembering and faulting ourselves as parents. Today our children would likely be the first to forgive us for our limitations as parents. If only we could do the same for ourselves.

Why is parental guilt so hard to forgive? Partly because it never gets talked about. Or if it does get talked about, the feelings regarding it never get worked out.

Unfortunately few parents ever discuss parental limitations in early family relationships and whether they were real or imagined. Instead, we imagine the worst, become isolated and feel endlessly guilty. If we ever do, some of us get pat responses from others like, “Oh, you did the best you could” or “You have no reason to be guilty.”

Indeed, parental guilt may be the biggest unresolved secret in our lives, so much so, that some of us may never even notice we are guilty. We simply atone.

So how do parents heal their broken hearts? They do so with great difficulty. Parental forgiveness is not an impossibility, but it requires our careful and continuing attention. In fact, each of us deserves to mend the empty space in our hearts from being an imperfect parent. The first step is recognizing it even exists at all.

Signals of parental guilt

You may have unresolved parental guilt if:

  • You remember specific ways you failed your children and have never acknowledged or dealt with it.
  • You are constantly micromanaging or looking to improve your children’s lives today.
  • You currently allow your adult children to use you or exploit  you financially or emotionally.
  • You cannot see value in your children’s adversity and are compelled to constantly protect them.
  • You and your children have pretend relationships so as to not disappoint you.
  • You cannot say “no” to your children and do things for them that they need to do for themselves.
  • You resent your children’s passivity and failure to grow up.
  • You judge other parents harshly when their children act out.
  • You would never fault your own parents for ways they may have failed you.
  • You see yourself as the only person who affects your children’s lives.
  • You are constantly faulting your children for their own mistakes.
  • You continually try to buy your children’s love.
  • You see your children’s behaviors as reflecting on you.
  • You cannot accept being powerless over how your children turned out.
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How culture helps parents feel guilty

Our culture either ignores parents or heaps on expectations from the get-go about raising perfect children. Parent training is absent in school. Many young adults are expected to know how to parent without help.

Unfortunately, raising kids is not like ducks taking to water. Most of us adults need continuing education and support to guide us through raising our children to make informed choices beyond how we were raised. Lacking such support causes many parents to have unrealistic expectations of our children and ourselves, and we feel guilty.

Good parenting is not innate; it’s learned. When we don’t learn, we are easily misled by social expectations and feel guilty.

Also, our consumer driven culture continues to demand that we buy products and hence will have a major investment in seeing that we parents feel deficient and must provide all the proper educational toys and college preparatory experiences for our children, even when there is no rhyme nor reason to their necessity or effectiveness. Heaven forbid we don’t get our children into Harvard.

Also, drug industries and medical researchers have an enormous stake in parents being perfect people. Whether science dictates that mothers breast feed their infants, unthinkingly pop pills to their kids or fathers make enough money to secure their children in luxury vans typically takes precedence over parents trusting their own instincts on what’s realistic and healthy for their children.

Medical journals and self-help books are filled with innumerable ways to blame mothers. The scant portrayals of dads as nurturing their kids in ordinary ways gives men no models for how to be even useful to their children, causing dads to feel irrelevant and guilty.

Lost in the media messages to parents is how much fun it is to be parents and how sufficient their tenderness is for their children.

Why do we parents feel so guilty?

We parents have numerous reasons to feel guilty about how we have raised our children. Some caregivers have directly or indirectly harmed children in their growing up years and are haunted by regret in how our loved ones have been affected.

We may say we did the best we could but we don’t acknowledge our failings. Instead, we unconsciously express our guilt by trying to buy our children’s happiness and devotion, or we allow our children to use us today. Not acknowledging such failings or making amends for them leaves us even more guilt-ridden.

Others of us have unrealistic views of what we were responsible for originally when we were raising our children. We may have seen ourselves as godlike figures who alone rules our children’s lives. If only that were true.

Others of us have unrealistic views of what we were responsible for originally when we were raising our children.Actually, rather than feeling like gods, many of us felt like servants when we raised  our children. Single mothers who try to be all things to their kids, divorced moms who are offsetting the sabotaging havoc of an ex-mate and devoted dads who try to fill in for the mother their children never had almost always fall into this category.

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Some of us parents forget that our children are not innocent in the process of raising them. They are people who are separate from us with their own agenda. Some children may bring massive limitations and unwillingness to being loved and cared for. Even Mother Teresa would fail with such children.

Finally, there are some parents who simply have not decided to forgive themselves. Somehow they mistakenly believe that putting the whole burden of parenting on their own shoulders will someday unlock the mystery of why their children are so intolerable and give them hope in changing their children into better people.

Seeing ourselves as bad parents will not make us happy or give hope. Some of us parents simply need to learn how to like ourselves apart from how our children turned out and to accept our own powerlessness over our children’s lives.

Self-forgiveness for parents

Whether you’re currently raising children or once did, holding yourself to a realistic standard of parental behavior is good for both you and your children. If we expect our children to be responsible for their behaviors, they will have the privilege of being responsible for themselves. If we completely own up to how we have hurt our children, we will have the privilege of being responsible for ourselves.

Forgiveness is not something our children do for us; it is something we do for ourselves with the support of others. It’s best to make amends, perhaps by writing our adult children a letter and discussing it with them later, about specific ways we have failed them while making or accepting no excuses for our actions.

It’s wise to ask our children first if they would be willing to hear from us and answer their questions that may arise from such an experience. Leaving the door open for future discussions as needed and examining how our current relationship with our children can be improved ought to be a part of the process.

No parent should be abused or made to pay if true healing is to occur. Sometimes, due to the danger of making amends directly to adult children, some parents may need to share such letters with intimate friends who will honor their feelings.

Most parental guilt is unrealistically self-imposed under the guise of love. Actually, unrealistic parental guilt is destructive and not loving. It’s best to stop any forms of atonement and self-sacrifice and not allow yourself to be used or abused by children. Even if you have been hurtful to your children, the best gift you can give them is to not do penance for your transgressions, solve their problems or let them hurt you.

Instead, understand the context of how your life limited your resources for love and be a loving parent to your children today. When you stop atoning with your kids, you stop feeling sorry for your children and offer them a genuine experience of love. I can recommend I’m OK…You’re a Brat: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing Yourself from the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.

Just remember that guilt-free love is more than good enough. It’s as good as it gets.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men. We may earn a commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. 

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Last Updated on April 13, 2024

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