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 indivi
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!
ABC TV’s The Checkout satirises the endless ways mothers are guilted into buying things they don’t need.
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. Researchalso has 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.