8 Things All Parents Must Do to Avoid the Dreaded Guilt Trap

by Leslie Petruk
Originally Published: 

You blame yourself whenever you see your child fail or if they are unhappy or struggling. You beat yourself up after you lose your cool when your child misbehaves. You wonder how you have failed your child when they come home with a bad test grade, and you are sure it is your fault that your child hurt himself when under your care.

There’s always something to feel guilty about when you’re a parent!

Judgment from those around us only increases the sense of guilt and shame that parents often already carry. If you have a child with special needs of any kind, whether autism, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or anything else, the stress and shame are only magnified. When you are in public and your child acts out or starts throwing a tantrum, you get that look. You know the look I’m talking about, the “why don’t you get your kid under control?” look.

Then there are the days when your sweet child turns into a toddler who has learned the word “No!” Or, when you hit the teen years, a child who is satisfied by absolutely nothing you do or say one day, and the next, you are the greatest parent who ever lived.

All parents have those days that make them feel like they aren’t cut out for the job and wish their child came with an instruction manual. Take comfort in knowing you are not alone!

Parenting is truly the hardest job on earth (in my humble opinion) and the reality is that the job description is forever changing. To add a little more challenge, what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another. Better yet, what works one day might not work the next! And then to top it all off, once you think you have one issue or challenge mastered, a brand new one arises. Every developmental stage brings with it new challenges and a whole new set of behaviors and dilemmas that we parents have to face.

Here’s the secret: It’s easy to feel like a failure as a parent if you base your success on your child’s happiness, their behavior and others’ judgments. If that’s your measuring instrument, you will feel guilty and as though you have failed more days than not!

Here are some pointers to avoid falling into the parents’ pit of guilt and shame:

Clarify, for yourself, what defines your success as a parent?

Some days, the fact that my children are alive and well-fed is good enough for me. You may have bad parenting moments each day, but in the big picture: Is your kid healthy, somewhat well-adjusted and able to feed himself?

Focusing on the big picture rather than the daily struggles can help you keep perspective and help appease the self-critical voice that reminds you of all of the ways you failed as a parent on any given day.

Don’t measure your success, or parent reactively, because of the comments and/or fear of being judged by others.

No one is a wiser parent than those who don’t have children. And those other parents who try to tell you how to parent are probably sharing their own self judgment with you. Don’t take it on!

Letting go of others’ views, staying connected to your child and responding in the way your child knows you understand their feelings (misbehavior is simply a way for children to communicate through their actions what they are feeling internally) will decrease your humiliation and increase your child’s ability to respond to you.

When you model an appropriate and compassionate parenting response, you will likely impress anyone who is watching, and they may even learn something!

Surround yourself with friends who will support you without judgment.

Find a friend you can call when you’ve had one of those “I’m ready to auction my child off to the lowest bidder” days, and one you can also support when they need to vent and make a conscious agreement that you won’t judge one another or give advice unless asked for it. Just a phone call to let off steam can be a huge relief and keep you off the slippery slope when you feel like you’re about to fall into the pit of guilt.

Don’t take your child’s behavior, feedback from judgmental teachers, and parenting advice from well-meaning family or friends personally.

Know that it’s OK to set boundaries with them as well. If you are forever getting the judgmental eye from your mother or the unsolicited parenting advice from your best friend or neighbor, let them know that you understand they are trying to help, but that you feel judged and criticized and are already hard enough on yourself and really need their support.

Setting boundaries can be done in a firm but compassionate way.

Educate yourself on each developmental stage of your child, challenges that they face and the tasks they are working to master.

This will help you to put their behavior (saying “No!” at the age of 3 and moodiness when they are 13) in context and to normalize it.

It helps for perspective, but also by learning about their developmental challenges, you can educate yourself on the best strategies to help your child through each of these stages/tasks. This equips you with the information you need and will keep you from viewing their behaviors as a failure on your part. If your child wasn’t going through these challenges, it would be more concerning.

Give yourself a break and the benefit of the doubt.

Every parent loses their cool and messes up at one point or another. If it is a chronic issue, find a support group or therapist to help you identify what is being triggered in you when you lose your patience. Otherwise, chalk it up to your developmental process. Just as you wouldn’t want your child to beat themselves up for a mistake they made, neither should you.

It is not what we do to our children, but what we do after what it is that we’ve done that truly matters. If you yelled at your child, apologize and take responsibility for your behavior. Repairs are one of the best teaching tools we can model for our children.

None of us are perfect and knowing that we can mend a hurt will help you avoid parenting guilt and teach your child the lessons of taking responsibility, finding forgiveness and offering compassion.

Trust your instincts!

You know your child better than anyone. The times I have felt the most guilt as a parent were when I didn’t trust my instincts and made a decision that discounted what my gut was telling me to do.

Remember that guilt is a feeling that can be a moral compass at times when we have done something to intentionally, or unintentionally, hurt someone—it’s not something we should use as a club to beat ourselves up with.

Remember that your children behave differently with you than they do at school, at friends’ houses or with family members when you’re not around. This is true for ALL children.

When I set a limit with my youngest daughter when she was 4 years old and she wasn’t getting what she wanted, she proclaimed, “You are ruining my life!” and stomped off to her room. My thought was, Great! I’m doing my job, and all is as it should be. Thirty minutes later, she was back to her usual happy self. Confirmation that I was on the right track!

This article originally appeared on YourTango.

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