It’s the guilty secret many parents are reluctant to admit aloud: no matter how much you love your kids, being a parent can make you feel bad.
But Google knows you’re not alone. Look up the phrase guilty parent and you’ll get more than 70 million results. Unfortunately, most of that advice is based on opinion, folklore or individual experience; it’s rarely based on evidence.
So what exactly do we know about the causes of parental guilt? And how can you turn feeling bad into a change for the better?
Don’t worry – it’s normal
The first, and perhaps most important, thing to know about parental guilt is that, at some point, every parent will experience it.
One of the best parts of our work is running parenting classes, where complete strangers from all walks of life come to learn evidence-based strategies to increase their confidence and skills.
We start each new class by asking parents why they’ve come. And in every class, as we work our way around the room, one parent after another admits that they are not sure what to do – they’ve read the books, Googled the answers, listened to their neighbours, tried the old wives’ tales, and whatever they try still isn’t working.
As they share their stories, the mood in the room lifts. People start to smile in recognition; maybe they’re not the only ones who are struggling with life’s greatest gift – their children!
Understanding the guilty brain
People feel guilt when their actions or thoughts don’t match their standards for themselves. It is considered a moral emotion that helps us regulate our interactions with others.
Guilt can be useful when it enables us to be self-reflective and to pay attention to others’s emotions. When a person feels guilty, they experience an increased activation of brain areas involved with taking another person’s perspective and being empathic. As a result, guilt often motivates people to make amends.
However, guilt can be a harmful emotion – especially because not everyone who feels guilty takes action to decrease their guilt. When people feel guilty, they are likely first to withdraw from the situation. Guilt has been described as a way to punish oneself.
Common causes of guilt, from work to play
Balancing a career and a family is a great source of guilt for both men and women. Research has also shown that women can feel a sense of guilt and failure about having lowered levels of libido and subsequent intimacy with their partners following childbirth.
An annual checkup with the paediatrician can be another source of guilt for parents, especially if they find out that their child may be at risk for obesity.
Then, as children grow and other siblings come along, parents can feel guilty about favouring one child over the other.
Discipline is another common source of guilt. Parents will often say they feel guilty about being too lenient with their children and “caving in”; they can feel equally guilty about becoming aggravated and resorting to yelling or smacking.
Five tips for parental guilt
Given these and many more potential causes of parental guilt, how can you avoid becoming overwhelmed?
1. Remember – parental guilt is normal
The next time you’re feeling like the worst parent in the world, remember: every parent feels like that at times. Sometimes, simply reminding yourself of that can be enough to get you through the day.
2. Let go of perfection
Having realistic expectations of yourself and your children can make a big difference. At the end of a long day, dealing with a toddler who refuses to go to bed will never be easy. Be realistic about your capacity to solve every problem effortlessly and without stress. It’s not always possible.
Nobody’s perfect. Not you, and not your kids. And that’s OK.
3. Channel your thoughts and feelings into action
Guilt can weigh you down and hold you back – or it can be the start of a change for the better.
While guilt can be harmful, it’s also associated with positive traits, such as being more empathetic. Let the knowledge that guilt is linked to a desire to do something differently motivate you to change what’s making you feel guilty.
4. Seek out reliable, evidence-informed parenting advice
Look for programs that have evidence of their effectiveness, including evidence of scientific success in actually resolving the issue at hand. And consider what form of help suits you best: are you looking for resources online, in a group setting or one-on-one in person?
If you’re looking for places to start, some good options to check out include the Raising Children Network in Australia, Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development in the United States, or the UK government’s Department of Education.
5. Create a network of encouragement with other parents
You can build your own network of encouragement with other parents. Share your stories – not just the highs, which are natural to want to talk up, but also the lows – and offer positive feedback.
The goal is to create a connected group of people who prompt one another to share ideas and access evidence-informed information.
And whenever you need to, go back to tip 1: remind yourself and your friends that feeling guilty is a normal part of being a parent.
* John Pickering’s author Q&A is now over, but you can read his comments below or listen to his interview on ABC Sydney 702. You can also have your say on this topic via this two-minute research survey.