Avoiding the Parent Guilt Trap

“I was too focused on work. I didn’t spend enough time with him.”
“I was overly critical.”
“I didn’t listen or take time to understand her.”
“I got divorced.”
“I yelled too much. I said some hurtful things.”
“I wasn’t consistent.”
“I pushed too hard.”
“I didn’t push enough.”
“My teen is out of control, and I don’t know how to make him behave. People blame me for the way he acts.”

Have you ever caught yourself saying one of these statements? Parenting is tough, and most of us secretly agonize about where we have gone wrong. We wonder if we have “damaged” our children based on something we did or failed to do. We contemplate whether our teen’s worst behaviors are our fault. Parenting can be a guilt trap!

Despite its negative association, guilt does serve a purpose. Guilt can serve as a warning sign that we are stepping outside our own values, which can be helpful to get us back on track. And, as parents, our guilty feelings are obviously an indicator that we care about our kids and are committed to doing the best we can to raise them well. Unfortunately, feelings of guilt are not always justified and can also drive us to make choices and take actions that are not in our best interests or the best interests of our teens.

Regardless of whether your actions contributed to your teen’s behavior or not, feeling guilty will not help you or your teen. When you blame yourself, you’re taking on your teen’s behavior—and you’re not helping him/her take responsibility. When we do this, we are teaching our teens that they do not have to be accountable for their actions. Accountability and taking responsibility for oneself are key skills teens must learn in adolescence in order to develop into successful adults.

Below are 1) signs that indicate your guilty feelings are destructive; 2) reasons why you shouldn’t allow guilt to drive your parenting decisions; 3) tips for coping with guilty feelings; and 4) reasons why parents should or should not feel guilty. Read on to escape the parenting guilt trap!

When Guilt Becomes Destructive

There are lots of ways that guilt can become a destructive force in our lives:

  • Chronic Guilt. For some parents, guilt can become chronic. Rather than feeling remorse for a specific mistake, we can get stuck in a thought process where we blame ourselves for everything that doesn’t seem right with our child. This type of guilt robs us of our ability to enjoy our life. It can also skew our perspective so that we no longer can tell what matters most to us. Signs that you might be falling into the trap of self-blaming are threatening, blaming, withdrawing from, or raging at your teen.
  • Manipulation Target. Guilt can make you vulnerable to manipulation. Teens are very perceptive and they generally know their parents’ triggers. Teens may use your guilt against you to get something they want.
  • People Pleasing. Sometimes we can feel guilt for things that are unrealistic or unnecessary. Many parents are so eager to make their children happy that they feel guilty when they have to say “no” to their teen or deny something their teen wants.
  • Never Enough. Some parents are prone to compassion fatigue – giving so much of yourself and your time that you eventually burn out and then feel guilty because you think you should be doing more. Sometimes, it is hard to break the habit established in early childhood of doing everything for our child, and we feel guilty if we are not helping them. However, it’s important to remember that by the time a child has reached adolescence, they should be doing most things for themselves, with some parental guidance and coaching.
  • Shame. Sometimes guilt for a specific action transfers into a more general sense of disgust or disappointment in who we are as an individual, which is called shame. When we are bombarded with self-doubt and negative self-worth, we are not able to grow, experience life to the fullest, or really be a positive influence on those around us.


Don’t Make Choices Based on Guilt

When our guilt has become destructive in our lives, we don’t always make the best decisions. Guilt can drive parents to give their teens too much freedom, possessions, praise, help, monetary reward – in other words, guilt can cause us to spoil our children or rescue them from every difficulty. Both of these lead to children developing into irresponsible, difficult, or selfish adults.

Instead, try to look at the big picture. The best thing you can offer as a parent is to instill the skills and values your teen will need as an adult. Your teen will get over disappointments and still love you when you say “no,” so make decisions based on the future you want for your teen.

Ways to Cope with Guilty Feelings

If you’re a parent caught in the guilt trap, you may be wondering what to do? Here are a few tips for coping with guilty feelings:

Truthful assessment. When you experience guilt, take an honest assessment of whether the situation is worthy of your guilt. Determine whether you may be exaggerating how much damage was actually caused by your actions or overestimating how responsible you are for the situation. Not volunteering for the bake sale even though your kids’ friends’ parents all do? Not worth any guilt. Not remembering to take your teen to the party after promising to do so? Yes, that warrants some guilt. Positive guilt leads you to make better decisions in the future, such as honoring your promises. Destructive guilt just makes you feel bad about yourself.

Repair if possible. If you believe your guilt is appropriate, the best thing to do is make amends, if possible. Apologize to the hurt party, even if that means telling your teen you are sorry. Correct the situation. Offer to help or fix a situation you caused. Determine if you need to make a change in your behavior to avoid repeating the error. Do whatever you can to make amends for your mistake… and then move on. Don’t dwell on it. Resolve to make a better choice next time and move on.

Prioritize. Let go of things that don’t matter or contribute to your goals as a family. If you try to do everything you think you should be doing, you will most likely feel stretched too thin, make mistakes, and feel guilty. If you focus on just a few priorities, you have a better shot at doing those well and feeling good about them. Focus on what matters most to you and let the rest go.

Avoid comparisons. Parents are forever comparing themselves to other parents, and there is no way to win. For example, working parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, while stay-at-home parents feel guilty for not bringing home money for their teens many activities and wants. When you’re on the outside looking in at someone else’s life, you are only seeing the positive things they are sharing with the public. Everyone has different talents, abilities, problems and difficulties, so there is no point in feeling guilty about not doing what someone else is. Let go of comparisons and keep staying focused on your own priorities.

Find practical solutions. If there’s a particular situation that makes you feel guilty, try developing some practical ways to address the problem. For example, if you feel guilty because you work too much, then you might try scheduling an hour of quality time with each of your kids every week, asking for flex time at work, or combining a family vacation with an upcoming business trip. In this case, our guilt can provide us the motivation to make a positive change that will improve our family.

Pretend you’re advising a friend. It can be a lot easier to extend compassion and kindness to others than it is to ourselves. When you’re feeling guilty, ask yourself if you would judge your friend as harshly if they had done something similar? Think about what you would say to your friend if they were in a similar circumstance, and offer yourself the same reassurance.

Should Parents Feel Guilty?

No single force can completely control your teen, so the simple answer is no, you are not at fault. Your teen is a product of their own personality and abilities, their environment, the culture, and much more. Parents have a significant role, but each child responds to the many different influencing factors of their life differently.

In addition, as humans, we cannot be perfect, and that is a good thing. Children learn from all of the experiences in their lives, especially from mistakes. Teens need some challenges and frustrations to become healthy, productive adults. They also need to see their parents make mistakes and recover from them. Trying to protect our teens too much or make life perfect for them actually deprives them of the opportunity to build the skills they need for adulthood.

Final Thoughts…

If you suffer from parenting guilt that continues long after the mistake or is excessive to the point that it prevents you from focusing on what’s important or from enjoying your life, consider speaking to a therapist. Trained psychologists can help you sort through your feelings, provide a broader perspective, guide you in establishing boundaries in your relationships, and find healthy coping skills.

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