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How to Cope With Parental Guilt and How to Make It Go Away
(Work & Family Life)
Updated: Feb 9th 2006

By Bort, Julie; Pflock, Aviva; Renner, Devra

Do grandparents also feel guilt? Ask Carol, a long-distance grandmother, here with grandson Etienne.

Most parents find guilt to be one of those familiar tunes that gets stuck in their heads, playing over and over again. Although the particular areas parents feel guilt over depends on the ages of their children, once guilt gets a hold of you, it may never let go- even through years of parenting and raising multiple children. In fact, 70 percent of the 1300 moms we surveyed said that parenting more than one child had caused them to feel more guilt and 40 percent said their guilt increased as their kids grew older.

Guilt comes from not meeting our own or others' expectations. It is a valid emotion, as all emotions are. The trick is to identify whether it's a help or a hindrance. Guilt helps when it motivates us to stop harmful behavior and encourages us to make amends. Guilt hinders us when it spurs negative feelings and behaviors.

Don't Dads feel guilty too?

Certainly, some men do. But walk into a room full of dads and ask them if they feel guilty in their role as parents. They'll give you a funny look and wonder what you're talking about. Men may have negative feelings about parenting, but they're more likely to name them "frustration" and "anger."

Anger, frustration, confusion, denial and desperation are all part of parenting. We can empower ourselves by recognizing that we will all experience those feelings-and by ditching the guilt associated with them. Parenting tests everything we've got-and in solving problems and helping our children through new experiences (wonderful and painful), we will know a kind of joy that simply can't be found any other way.

Seven guilt-freeing principles

1 BE WILLING TO LET SOME THINGS GO.

It's never easy to prioritize things in your life. The trick is to ask yourself: "In what ways would my child be harmed if I didn't do this task right now?" If the answer is from "not much" to "not at all," you've found an item that can be dropped down the priority totem pole. Housework is an ideal example.

You want your kids to play in a safe environment but it's OK for your house to look like children live in it-even when guests drop by. The first step in conquering housekeeping guilt is to create a realistic schedule for basic maintenance. "Realistic" is defined by your own management style and expectations. And keep in mind that housework and interacting with the kids are not mutually exclusive. Engage your children in housekeeping with you!

2 PARENTING IS NOT A COMPETITIVE SPORT.

It's human nature to compare and contrast, but please don't do it over the developmental milestones of your kids. Faster truly isn't better. Walking is the classic example. A child who walks at 9 months isn't necessarily a genius or a future Olympian.

If you have any concern about your child's development, ask your pediatrician, your child's teacher or tap other resources. There will always be kids who achieve faster, higher, bigger, whatever- and ones who do not. Don't get caught up in competition with other parents. That's the source of so much guilt. Childhood is not a race. Enjoy your children, let them be individuals.

3 LOOK TO THE FUTURE AND BIG PICTURE.

We all want to raise children to be smart, kind-hearted, responsible, loving, hardworking and independent. We need to keep these long-term goals in mind in our parenting decisions and the ways we model these behaviors ourselves. In critical situations, ask yourself: "How will this help guide my child to become that wonderful person I foresee?"

The future also includes you. As children get older, you'll have more time for other interests that will enrich your life. We're programmed to think the reverse-that time away from the family is "stolen" and we should feel guilty about it. But we can show children that to live happy lives, we need to be engaged in different activities that make us happy. When kids see you doing things you love to do, they, too, will be likely to find a beloved hobby, sport or other activity for themselves.

Missing a game is a "biggie" among parent guilts.

4 LEARN TO LIVE IN THE MOMENT.

Put aside those to-do lists and just be with your children in the here and now. This takes some practice but, when you think of it, our kids don't really need us for very long in a day or for that many years in a lifetime. Put down the phone, laundry or car keys and play awhile. Read their favorite story to them for the 100th time.

Try to include a few minutes of daily "alone-time" rituals, a weekly activity together (even a ??-minute one) and an annual big block of time for each of your children. Add in a longer period of alonetime once a week or so. This is important for all children, toddlers to teens. Do an activity you both enjoy-baking cookies, throwing a baseball, whatever.

5 GET USED TO SAYING YES MORE OFTEN AND BEING ABLE TO DEFEND YOUR NO.

We need ro choose our battles carefully. Safety must be your primary concern-you would never let your child ride without a seat belt, for example-but if your child would rather have roller skates than the scooter you came to the store to buy, does it really matter? Time together is more relaxed if everyone makes an effort to give a yes answer instead of being on "automatic pilot" and saying no to everything.

Our survey found that yelling at kids is the No. 1 guilt- inducer. When you are tempted, just stop-and consider what you want your child to learn. If you're just thinking about how you feel and what you need, yelling at your child may make you feel better-but will it help your child change his or her behavior? The 3C's key to guilt-free discipline: Remain calm, be consistent and show them you care.

6 LAUGH WITH YOUR CHILDREN.

A sense of humor may not be something we are born with, but we can work at it. Tell silly jokes with your kids and laugh at theirs. If you're feeling stressed, you can break your tension (and theirs) simply by smiling.

Learn the difference between laughing with kids and at them. Be very careful with teasing. Sometimes parents don't know when to stop. They miss the cues that tell them the fun is over. We want our children to see the humor in life, but it should be good-natured- never making someone else the butt of our joke.

7 SET ASIDE TIME FOR FAMILY FUN.

Having fun as a family means enjoying each other's company in a variety of ways-playing, eating and doing planned activities. Don't think of it as "quality time," because quality time can become another guilt-trap. For example, you set aside time to play with your toddler and he/she is taking a late nap. You plan to take your son to the park but he's been invited to a friend's house. Quality time can be "focused" or "hanging out" time-sometimes planned, sometimes not, says researcher Ellen Galinsky. It's when you really focus on your children, really listen and connect with each other.

-Adapted from the authors' new book Mommy Guilt. See We Recommend on page 8.

Copyright Work and Family Life Feb 2006

 

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