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Parent Guilt: A Silent Epidemic

Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of a confessional booth in a small hamlet of devout churchgoers. In just a few Sundays, you discover, to your bemusement, that almost every parishioner is racked with guilt about this or that indiscretion - but they each think they are the only blemished souls, while they view all other townsfolk as upright citizens. If only they would forego their virtuous appearances and share their truths with each other, they would feel so relieved to see they are not alone!

So it is with parent guilt. Parents everywhere agonize in secret: "Where did I go wrong? Will my child be damaged because of what I did, or because of what I failed to do?" To make matters worse, these days there is so much more information out there about what babies and children need; we have doubled the fodder for self-recrimination. Gone are the ancestral days when a casual attitude to children's feelings left our forebears largely untroubled by what happens to a child.

Guilt weighs all the more heavily now that so many of us have plumbed the depths of what felt "toxic" about our own childhoods - thanks to the many hours in therapy and personal growth workshops, the piles of self-help books on our nightstands, and of course, thanks to Oprah. We are the first generation to be swearing, en masse, not to do it like our parents did. And then there is that fleeting moment when you catch yourself wondering what your child will tell his or her therapist about you one day! Yegads!

And so, we worry in private about how we rate as parents, how our actions will affect our kids. So painful is this festering guilt, we tend to keep it buried; a conversation we have with ourselves in the quiet of the night. Rarely do we show one another how out-to-sea, out-of-control and vulnerable we sometimes feel. The result: most of us tend to live in an illusory world where parents all around us look as if they are coping so much better than we are, and we are alone with our quirks, pitfalls, ill-temperedness and embarrassing lapses in attentiveness.

Much as I long for guilt-relief however, I cannot stomach the glib remarks often used to give parent guilt the brush-off. "Don't worry about kids, they are resilient", goes the mantra - and if we could only believe it, our worries would go away. The hard fact is that every parent will sometimes, without necessarily realizing it or intending it, cause their children pain.

In one way or another, each one of us is wounded, and our own role models were imperfect. We cannot quarantine our children from our own humanly limited abilities to care and respond. Sooner or later, in every parenting relationship there is call for remorse, making amends and even apology. And though it makes us uncomfortable, our babies and children have every right to protest against us when we let them down. We make claims about children's "resilience" - but do we ourselves have the ego-resilience to hear them out, when they point squarely at our parental lapses?

So, what can we do when we make the painful discovery that something we have done has caused our child to hurt? And how can we deal with the guilt that comes up? Before we go any further, let's look briefly at what guilt actually is.

What is this thing called guilt?

Guilt and remorse are very different; in fact they are opposites. Remorse is about the other: it is about allowing their feelings, listening with empathy, and it is about the desire and effort to repair any hurt we may have caused.

Guilt, on the other hand, is self-focused - and is about beating ourselves up. By definition, guilt is the fear of retribution. Guilt gnaws at your guts while it tells you "Look what you've done, what kind of a parent are you? You should have known better!" As a pre-emptive measure against the judgment of our peers, guilt strikes the first blow against ourselves. As guilt becomes hard to bear, it cloaks itself in denial, with rationalizations like "Oh, I'm sure he'll be all right", "She is resilient", "Those are just crocodile tears" - ad infinitum.

True remorse in action builds love; it heals, it is the very thing that allows us to move on and let go. Guilt, on the other hand, is a blind alley that keeps us stuck, and alienates our children from us. Though it is a natural and universal human reaction, it is one of the most corrosive of all emotional states - and it does nothing to help relationships grow.

The good news is that the key to letting go of guilt may be simply a question of perspective. If you sometimes agonize with parent guilt, I'd like to suggest a few fresh ways of looking at yourself and your relationships that might bring you some release.

Should learners feel guilty?

We generally don't mind acknowledging that we have more to learn when it comes to our hobbies or our professions. Why should parenting be any different?

Pay attention to the things you tell yourself about you as a parent. The guilty self-talk that sometimes plagues our minds can sound quite alarming - it includes statements such as: "I have damaged my child! I am a bad mother! I am a failure as a father! My child will grow up to be dysfunctional!"

Do you ever talk to yourself that harshly when you make mistakes as you learn in other areas of your life? Sure, some of the mistakes we make as parents can have a big impact on our kids, and we should not take our responsibility lightly. But does that warrant attacking ourselves?

Most parents feel they should be able to handle parenting better than they do, and then become disappointed in themselves when parenting feels harder than they expected. If this is true for you, ask yourself how you came to expect so much from yourself.

All parents are learners!

Sometimes it helps to see ourselves in a larger context. How expert should we all be as parents? Most people seem to assume that humans have always raised their children the same way, in happy and loving families. The fact is that the further back you look in the history of what we call civilization, the harsher and more neglectful parenting was - and this is true for a majority of the world's cultures.

I know of no better antidote to the "guilts", than finding out that parenting is an ever-evolving work in progress. A quick glance at the evolution of parenting through the ages does wonders to liquidate our sense of guilt, and replace it with humility and excitement for learning and growing as parents.

During the Victorian era, European parents scarcely involved themselves in the messy business of child-rearing. The wealthy employed nannies for this onerous task, while the rest sent their children to work, often as young as four. Child labour laws were not enacted until the middle of the 20th century.

The Middle Ages through to the Renaissance saw a majority of parents off-loading their babies to paid wet nurses, and evicting their children to live as apprentices or oblates to the Church. Most parents shunned close bonds with their children. Both at home and at school, children were regularly and savagely beaten. The whip, birch or cane were standard features in every classroom and hearth.

For historians of childhood, the documents make this quite clear: across all the major ancient civilizations, from Athens to Rome, from Egypt to China, from the Inca to the Aztecs, childhood was a nightmare. Few children escaped the kinds of treatment we now classify as abuse, child sacrifice was rife, and millions of children were abandoned.

As modernity gathered pace, the evolution of parenting accelerated. Corporal punishment, for instance, is fast disappearing. Yesterday's spanking is today's smack on the wrist (in Australia, that is). In grandma's day it was the wooden spoon, and in the 19th century flogging was de rigueur. Today, it is illegal in 34 countries for a parent to smack or in any way hit a child. A further 23 nations are preparing to introduce this law, and the list is growing rapidly towards worldwide prohibition. [Editor's note: Since this article was written, the list has grown to over 60 countries.]

The commitment to treating children respectfully is a surprisingly recent innovation. International awareness about child abuse first came into being when a concerned American pediatrician coined the term "battered child syndrome" in 1962. Prior to this, violence against children was not deemed to warrant public scrutiny. The art of breast­feeding was almost wiped out by artificial formulas during the 1960s and 1970s. With the help of dedicated counsellors and lactation experts, breast­feeding is painstakingly clawing its way back, though a generation of role models was almost lost.

Most of our generation were protected, fed, clothed and educated by devoted and loving carers - but few of us can say our emotional needs, as babies and toddlers, were deeply and consistently met. As the next rung on the social-evolutionary ladder, we seem to be the first generation (or two) to concern ourselves en masse with children's emotional health. Ask your parents how it felt for them to be a child - and if your grandparents are still around, ask them the same question. You'll probably find that most (though not all) would have fed their babies under strict schedules, and routinely left them to "cry it out". Most of them would have used corporal punishment liberally. Most would have been caned at school and experienced much harsher conditions than what we allow today. For most of us, this is our psychological heritage.

Given this legacy, can you still expect yourself to be an expert at meeting your child's emotional needs? We are collectively beginners, trying to heal ourselves while creating a new model for empathic parenting. Considering this historical backdrop, is it easier for you to acknowledge and forgive your mistakes?

For sure, we all have blind spots and as parents we occasionally stumble. Some of us are good at empathy but have trouble asserting strong boundaries. Some can be very assertive as parents but at times lack sensitivity. Some of us seem to relate better to toddlers than to babies, or vice versa. Nevertheless, because of the new emphasis on healthy emotional development around the world, an opportunity exists to create a new society through our honest efforts to grow as parents.

Still feel guilty?

Who said listening to our children would be easy?

Empathy can be a hard-won skill. Psychologists and counsellors spend hundreds of hours learning how to listen to people's feelings so that they feel heard. Despite all that training and even after years of experience, not one of us can claim that we don't need to keep improving our ability to empathize. Good listening requires a conscious effort to be humble, open, and to set judgment and expectations aside - we can keep learning this forever.

So why are we surprised when we have an empathy lapse with our children? It's fine to be remorseful, but why do we beat ourselves up? If even professional listeners need to keep learning and practicing their art, is it not OK that parents have much to learn about listening too?

Who said we were meant to cope by ourselves?

The supportive village that all parents need is largely missing from our culture. Parenting is done in private, and many parents have never touched a baby until they have their own.

The more anthropologists and social scientists understand about human parents, the more emphatically they conclude that we were designed to raise children in small co-operative groups, and not in nuclear families. Parenting is meant to take place where help is always at hand, in a collective setting where even the children begin rehearsing child-rearing skills from a young age. By the time an adolescent reaches adulthood in such a society, he or she is already thoroughly familiarized with how to care for children of all ages. When we in the West find ourselves struggling, not knowing what to do with our child, we risk blaming ourselves unless we ask ourselves these two questions: "Do I have all the support I deserve?" and "Did my elders show me how to interact with babies, toddlers and children?"

Here is one of the most important ideas that all parents should understand: parenting is not meant to be as hard as it feels for most people. The main reason why we struggle, why our patience runs short, is that our nuclear-family situation is entirely un-natural, unreasonable and unsustainable. The fact that it is normal does not absolve it from being unhealthy. No parent is meant to be at home alone with one or more children; it is Nature's design to always have a fresh pair of hands nearby that we can turn to long before tiredness becomes exhaustion.

So, the next time you find yourself reacting impatiently towards your child - and then recoiling in guilt - tell yourself this is a sign that you do not have enough support as a parent. Reaching out and hanging out with other like-minded parents can be so rewarding, while saving you and your child a lot of anguish. If your extended family is not available, you might like to join one of the many natural parenting groups in your area, or form your own. Consider this an essential, not a luxury.

Compassion instead of guilt

There is one last reason why sometimes we don't respond to our children in the most appropriate way. Next time your child's behaviour presses your buttons until you respond in a regrettable way, take a few moments to look inward. Try to recall how you were treated when you behaved in similar ways to your child, when you were about the same age. Remember how that felt from the inside, in the body of a child. In most cases, when we give our children less than the patience and sensitivity they deserve, this springs from a deep emotional wound dating back to our own childhood. In the course of my work, many parents have shared with me some deep regret about how, at one time or another, they have disappointed their children. A journey into their own childhood memories is always ripe with revelation; shedding new light on their own reactions, and replacing guilt with compassion for themselves.

Two benefits reward the self-inquiring parent: one is the relief from guilt that re-connecting with inner child feelings can bring. The other is how this opens our hearts even more towards our children.

When we do something that wounds those we most cherish, this is a signal that something in ourselves wants healing. It is not a time to beat ourselves up. Certainly, if our child is upset he or she needs our help, and perhaps our apology - and we should give these freely. But we also need to attend to our own need for healing, self-compassion, understanding and growth.

A group of psychological researchers in New York were once working with mothers for whom the sound of their babies crying was so grating that they found it very hard to comfort them. Since having a baby was so unpleasant to them, these mothers showed signs of Post Natal Depression. When asked to describe their own childhoods, many shared stories of abandonment, maternal remoteness, detachment and even abuse. Many of these mothers broke down and cried bitterly as they told their tale. What the researchers discovered next was most uplifting. Once the mothers had grieved openly in the presence of a caring individual, they found themselves spontaneously reaching out to their babies and lovingly comforting them in their arms. The babies' cries had lost the power to trigger their mothers' long-held pain.

Parenting does not improve simply because we avail ourselves of better quality information and advice. What most transforms our relationship with our children is the inner work: our willingness to learn, heal and grow.

A mother I once worked with found that her relationship with her daughter had soured when she became a teenager. She found herself often becoming angry at her daughter and feeling critical of her. Their relationship was increasingly conflicted and on their worst days, mother's and daughter's feelings for each other approximated hatred. The mother felt mortified with guilt, and anguished about the growing distance between them. That is, until she began to take an active interest in how her own relationship with her mother felt to her when she was a teenager. Her own mother had been incessantly nit-picking and judgmental of her, and had "never said a kind word to her as a teen". As an adolescent she felt alienated, ashamed and angry. No wonder she found it so difficult to relate to her own teenage daughter - she had never been allowed to be a teenager herself. As she shared this with me, she wept with anger and sorrow.

By shifting her focus away from her outward behaviour, towards how she felt inside, the mother's judgements about her daughter began to dissolve, and her guilt and self-recrimination began to lift. The more compassion she felt for herself, the more acceptance she had for her daughter's natural adolescent characteristics: her moodiness, her strong opinions, her questioning of authority and her thirst for adventure. Mother and daughter were soon talking more openly, discovering each other's inner worlds, and a new friendship began to grow between them.

We are all familiar with the edict "Physician: heal thyself!" Here is a new one for us all: "Parents: parent yourselves!"

The benefit of releasing guilt

A healthy, emotionally secure child will spontaneously protest when they feel hurt by you, or disappointed in you - and they don't trouble themselves to speak too elegantly! For toddlers it's usually something along these lines: "You're a bad Mummy! You're a silly Daddy!" Or perhaps something a little more colorful when it's a teenager airing discontent.

I do not favour any parent accepting verbal attacks from their children. However, unless we listen empathically and validate children's feelings, healing and renewal cannot take place. And here's why our release from parent guilt is vital for the flow of love between us and our children. It's only when we are not in the throes of guilt, shame or inadequacy that we seem to have the spaciousness to respect our children's right to protest. An intact self-esteem is what makes us strong enough to really hear our children when they say: "Dad, you let me down! Dad, you hurt me! Mum, you didn't listen!" A fair hearing is a gift, because only once feelings are heard and validated can love come back, and thus we move on. Children do not harbor grudges like adults can. Their resentment vanishes the moment they feel heard - and next thing you know you are being told you're the best parent in the world. But guilt or shame can lead us to stifle our children's attempts at relationship-repair. When they claim their grievances, we turn away, we deny or downplay their feelings and this makes them feel unimportant. Our guilt makes us super-sensitive, and hard to talk to.

When parent guilt is replaced by emotional honesty, it is as if the sun rises again for the family. Relationships become far more pleasurable and laughter returns to the household. Your child does not want you to grovel, to beg forgiveness, to put yourself down or diminish yourself in any way. All he or she wants is acknowledgment, a truthful recognition of what you did or did not do and how this made them feel, and to see that you're interested in learning and growing. That's not so hard; it just involves an open heart, humility and emotional vulnerability. The rewards are well worth it. By the way - if you can do this, you will be amazed at how forgiving your children can be towards you.

So, what is it that makes us "good parents"?

As a father I have made so many mistakes, been so impatient, irritable and inappropriately pushy at times, that if my self-esteem was based on being a "good Dad", I would be in trouble! So, what else should our self-esteem as parents be about?

I would urge all parents to redefine what a "good parent" is: it is not so much about how often we get it right for our children, it is not about not making mistakes. Good parenting is about a willingness to acknowledge our errors and our lapses in empathy openly, and to be humble enough to apologize when necessary. Also, it is about maintaining an ongoing commitment to learning, healing and growing. If we enjoy our children for who they are and avoid taking ourselves too seriously, this goal is well within our grasp.

An integral part of parenting - one that few of us were told about in advance - is that sooner or later we wound and disappoint our kids. We love them immeasurably, but we hurt them at times. The reasons for this are legion, and it is a painful fact to acknowledge. Usually, we seem to have our parenting "blind spots" in precisely the areas in which we were wounded as children - the very places where we need healing and support ourselves. These all-too human limitations do not define our relationship with our children. A loving relationship is not one in which hurt never happens. The most fulfilling relationship with your child is possible when it is regularly renewed through the telling, and hearing, of emotional truths.

Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist and author of Parenting for a Peaceful World and Heart-to-Heart Parenting. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and relationship counseling. For further information and articles, visit Robin's website and blog