Q&A: How do I handle this parenting guilt?
I’m jumping right into this Q&A today because it’s a big topic.
So big, in fact, that I have received this question for years.
“Teresa, how do I handle this parenting guilt?”
Before I answer this question, I want to clearly connect parent guilt and creating social change.
Parent guilt can feel so heavy and speaks volumes about the ways we were taught to view the world. As children, when our voices were diminished, when we were taught to fear losing control, when we experienced radically separate power structures, we began to accept inequality as normal.
We also learned a lot of messages about emotions. We learned which emotions were okay to express vs. which emotions were not allowed, or were even scary. The trouble we have now, as we are in the “parent role,” is that we want to be different. We’re afraid we can’t be. And, we don’t know what to do.
Add these thoughts to the actual experience of parenting guilt.
I hear a lot of sadness and regret in the question. You look back on those moments when you treated your child badly. Maybe you yelled or screamed. Or, you shut down and coldly walked away.
Maybe the thoughts and feelings going through you felt so horrible that you couldn’t even admit out loud what they were. You feel stuck in the guilt for what happened and the fear that you’ve caused deep harm.
If you are like so many parents I know and work with, you have ideals of who it is you want to be as a parent. And because we are human, we all fall short of those ideals.
We look back at what we’ve done (in the last hour or the last year) and we feel guilt, regret, sadness, or shame.
And fear comes up too, right? Fear that each time we treat a child badly, each time we lose it, we create irreparable harm. If not irreparable harm, we know we have inflicted pain on the child we profess to love deeply.
We may even be deeply afraid that we cannot change, that we don’t have the power to change and we will continue to do this, over and over in some way or another.
If you were in front of me right now, the first thing I would do is hold you gently in my gaze to show you how I understand and feel deep compassion.
And then together we would take a deep breath, as deep as we could. And we would release that deep breath.
So . . . what to do about parenting guilt?
First, acknowledge that you’re feeling it. Deeply, truly, honestly. Without any qualifiers or explanations. Honor the emotions that come with it.
Second, experiment with turning towards the uncomfortable feelings. Pause and listen deeply. And if it makes you uncomfortable and you shift away from it, turn back gently and pause again. When we truly listen to the emotions they do move through us.
When we do this, we give ourselves the gift of being heard, acknowledged, (and to push you a bit further) even to be loved when we are feeling anger and rage. These are the same things we wanted as children.
We become the parents to ourselves, that we needed, but didn’t have.
We create space for our own feelings to be heard.
In doing so, we become better at providing this space for children.
A child triggers us. We connect to our own feelings and discomfort. We create acceptance internally, and that flows outward toward the child.
Again, this is a process. It’s one I’ve been working on for years and continue to explore. I encourage you to go at your own pace, to be kind with yourself, and to trust yourself. In doing so, you are modeling a radically authentic way to be with young people, and you are changing our world.
In awe of you and your journey,
P.S. I know that was a lot of content, so please be gentle with yourself. And if you’re wanting more support, take a moment to read about an extremely tough time that I had to grapple with guilt.