Coping with parental guilt

Terreece M. Clarke
Columbus Parent

Guilt. It's a common emotion affecting most parents. While it's a normal occurrence, most parents are reluctant to talk about it. Some are worried about exposing the reasons why they feel guilty and others are concerned over the guilt of feeling guilty.

Often, feelings of guilt stem from both societal pressures and internal expectations, said Calisa Nickelson, mother of two, licensed professional counselor and founder of Seasons Life Coaching & Counseling. Parents feel guilty for a wide variety of reasons. Issues with time management, emotional support, discipline, eating habits and even environmental awareness were all reasons cited by Nickelson. touts eco-guilt as the latest trend among environmentally aware parents. InEco-Guilt: The New Plague Among Enlightened Parents, blogger April Streeter wrote how every choice, from diapers to dishwashing, can leave parents stressed to find the greenest choice--with sour feelings lingering for not doing enough politically to change the ecological landscape.

Manika Williams of Berwick admitted she felt guilty about not doing enough research to find a variety of healthy foods that her 2-year-old daughter would eat. The fact that Williams recently returned to work full time has only compounded her feelings. "Parents [such as Williams] who want to spend as much time with their children as possible are reluctant to allow other things, like researching foods, to interfere with family time and as a result experience feelings of guilt because they can't do it all," Nickelson said.

Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock, authors of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids, said, "Guilt is a normal emotion. We never suggest parenting will be entirely guilt-free. What is damaging is the debilitating kind of guilt, the kind that contributes to not just second-guessing parenting (and other kinds of) decisions, but not being able to make any at all."

While the feelings are normal, there are ways to cope. When it comes to discipline, Nickelson had a few tips for parents. "The best way to cope is to be consistent, clear, set reasonable limits, and when you feel guilty [about enforcing a rule], you may be better off [sharing your feelings] with someone else, instead of caving in. Parents who parent out of guilt often teach children that rules are optional," she said.

Renner said throughout their research, yelling has been the biggest thing to cause parents angst. "The more consistent you are, the less you'll have to yell because your kids will know what to expect," Nickelson said.

The Illinois Early Learning Project has great tips on dealing with guilt over not spending enough time with your children.

Change what you can. Some aspects of your time--such as work schedules--may be hard to change. Make the most of the time you do have with your child. Schedule meal times, game times, reading together and other important family times first. Other activities--children's sports, art, or music classes--can be fit into the time that's left.

Limit the use of television, computers and video games at home. Renner said that while moms may get top billing when it comes to guilt, dads are increasingly packing their bags for a ride on the guilt express. "As dads and moms increasingly share carework of the children, we see a change in the way fathers are talking about their emotions in regard to parenting. We see many more dads blogging about guilt than we did three years ago and if you read the blogs, minus any references to gender, readers would be hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between a mom or a dad writing about their guilt."

All of the experts we spoke to said parents should give themselves a break. There is no such thing as a "perfect parent." Guilt, at times, can push you to be a better parent, but parents should work hard at keeping their feelings in perspective. "[Feelings of guilt are] normal and we need to accept that's the way it is. If [guilt] weighs so heavily, eventually you will rectify [the situation], or move on," Nickelson said. "Remember, the main goal is to raise healthy, happy kids."



More tips for coping with parental guilt:

Guilt trip: I lose my temper.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Make sure your expectations meet the level of development and ability for your child.
  • Be positive with your children more often. Praise them when you see them behaving well instead of reacting only when they are misbehaving.
Guilt trip: I can't give my children everything they want or their friends have.
  • Remember your childs happiness is shaped by the values you set. They will remember a childhood full of love and the experiences you shared together, not the designer clothing and expensive toys.
  • Spend quality time creating memories and sharing experiences.
Guilt trip: I worry I'm not always doing the best for my child.
  • It's natural to worry, but trust your instincts. If there are issues you are having trouble with, talk to friends, family, and other parents whom you trust and admire.
Source: Illinois Early Learning Project,
Books on parental guilt:
  • Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents & Responsibility Revisited, by Dorothy W. Martyn
  • Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • Cutting More Ties That Bind: Letting Go of Fear, Anger, Guilt, and Jealousy so We Can Educate Our Children and Change Ourselves, by Phyllis Krystal
  • Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan for Family Healing, by Richard Cohen
  • Parents Are Forever: A Step-By-Step Guide to Becoming Successful Coparents After Divorce, by Shirley Thomas
  • Motherhood without Guilt, by Debra Rosenberg
Online resources:
PBS Parents
DIY Father