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What is Parent Guilt & What Can We Do About it?

Ever felt guilty as a parent? Want to understand why we feel this way, and how we can escape it? Yes? Read on - you're in the right place.



mother reading a book and looking out the window

As parents, one of the emotions that can plague us the most is guilt. Guilt about almost everything and anything. It can start even before our child is born, and last until, well... does it ever end?


We read a lot about "mum guilt". But why do we feel this way? We can all recognise that guilt feels bad. So what purpose does it serve?


Let me guide you through some of the science behind parent guilt, and how this can help us.


So what is guilt for?


It may be hard to believe, but guilt is actually a completely normal and essential emotion.  From an evolutionary point of view, we needed it to help us stay safe and protected by our “pack”.


Emotions are messengers, and guilt motivated us to take responsibility if we did something perceived by others as “wrong". We could then make amends and change our behaviour. This helped us to re-gain the trust and cooperation of those around us. 


Emotions are messengers, and guilt motivated us to take responsibility if we did something perceived by others as “wrong".

This science also helps us understand why we so often feel guilty after seeing what other parents are doing: our brains are evolutionarily wired to compare ourselves to others.


But why do we always seem to judge ourselves to be "worse" than others? Why do we always feel like we're falling short?


"Comparisonitis"


One reason is that modern society creates completely unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a parent. We're faced with outlandish external standards to live up to.


We are bombarded with information on social media about how to be a "good parent" - much of it well-meaning but often overwhelming and lacking nuance. When we inevitably fail to implement all of this advice, we feel like we're the only ones messing up.


We are faced with incessant yet unrealistic snippets of other people’s lives... other parents' parenting... other people's kids. Unfortunately, our brains assume these positive images are the norm.


So, it makes sense that, when our brains compare us to these unrealistic, impossible pictures, we feel we are failing.


It doesn’t help that our brains are also geared up to focus more on negative information than positive - so we easily discount evidence that we’re doing ok.


mum cuddling a baby on the sofa with her eyes closed

Sky-high standards


Another factor that triggers feelings of guilt is when we do something that seems to violate our own values and morals - but these internal standards can be unrealistic, too.


It's completely normal to have had “fantasies” of what being a parent would be like, before we became one. We might have been crafting these ideas, consciously or subconsciously, since we were little.


Our imagined life as a parent may have been related to intergenerational parenting patterns that we planned to break (“I'll  be different to my mum”), as well as beliefs we have about ourselves ("I’m a patient person”). We may have planned to instil values that are important to us - such as family time - but had idealistic notions of how this would look in our life as a parent.


When we find that the reality of parenting is very different to what we had in mind, the dissonance can be distressing. It turns out that we are human after all, we have flaws we didn't even know about, and we are unable to stick to our fantastical standards because having a real child is really, really hard.


Many of us were able to exert control over our lives before children, we worked hard and we made things happen. As a parent, it just doesn't work like that any more. There is little we can control and often trying harder makes no difference! The lack of control we experience as a parent can be extremely anxiety provoking.


Most of us know that the “perfect" mother or father simply doesn’t exist - theoretically. But we can still beat ourselves up about not managing to be one.


The perfect child


A third component is that we see unrealistic images of what children “should be" like.


All children are different, and quite often they don't behave like we expected them to. Many children do not respond easily to “typical” parenting approaches, including neurodivergent children.


If we have a child who doesn’t seem to fit into “the box”, we can start to blame ourselves, feeling guilty that we've done something wrong, rather than realising that our children simply are who they are. We need to know this: as a parent, we can provide the fertiliser for our child's plant, but we can't fundamentally change the flower they were destined to bloom into.


This source of guilt is not helped by misinformation on the internet around psychological concepts such as attachment and trauma, meaning parents are constantly afraid of “damaging” their children through normal, everyday parenting behaviours. It's no wonder we feel nervous and guilty as modern parents.


As a parent, we can provide the fertiliser for our child's plant, but we can't fundamentally change the flower they were destined to bloom into.

child eating a bowl of cereal

Unrealistic standards = guilt?


So as you can see, when we have unrealistic standards for ourselves and for our child, we will inevitably fail to meet them and the result is going to be guilt!


Blaming ourselves is our way of finding something we can control and change in the uncertain landscape of parenting - but unfortunately, the level of guilt many of us feel doesn't actually help us do this. It does the opposite. The more we blame ourselves, the further away we find ourselves from the parent we want to be, and the more likely it is that our guilt tips over into shame.


Guilt is an emotion related to our behaviour not our identity - “I’m a good mum, but I did something I wish I hadn’t”.   Shame on the other hand relates to an evaluation of who we are as a person – “I’m a bad mum” – it’s about who we are at our core: “I’m such a horrible dad; I’m useless; I’ve let them down; I’ve done them damage; what’s wrong with me?”


The more we blame ourselves, the further away we find ourselves from the parent we want to be, and the more likely it is that our guilt tips over into shame

Shame shuts us down, makes us more stressed and overwhelmed. This means we’re less able to parent like we want to, which leads to greater feelings of worthlessness and self-criticism, and creates a vicious cycle.


Parent shame has a high correlation with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and certainly with parental burnout.


Studies show that on average, women feel shame more easily than men, so mothers are particularly at risk, but I prefer to use terms like "parent guilt" rather than "mum guilt": excluding dads places even more weight on mums’ shoulders, so it’s crucial we widen the conversation.



father walking with his son holding hands

So what can we do about it?


Ann Voskamp said "Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces.” Being vulnerable and real about what it's like to be a parent is essential.


I have run many groups for parents over my career and each time I have had the privilege of doing this, I see group members' guilt and shame start to melt away when they find out other parents are experiencing the same difficult things.


This in part goes back to the neuropsychology mentioned above: when our brains have more realistic information about others’ experiences, then we are more able to make accurate, fair comparisons that don’t lead to guilt and shame.


What else helps parent guilt?

Truth bomb: It's not as easy as just "ditching mum guilt". If it was, we would all be doing it!


Understanding the neuropsychology behind WHY we feel guilty - and why it's not our fault - is the first step in shifting it. But the cycle of parent guilt, shame and stress is complex. Over my career, I have learnt that parents need support to address multiple factors at once in order to reduce these difficult and often ingrained feelings and thought processes.


Truth bomb: It's not as easy as just "ditching mum guilt". If it was, we would all be doing it!

That's why I have developed a psychological framework to tackle key influences on parent guilt using evidence-based techniques. It's called The Guilty Parent Escape Plan!


It has 6 “Keys” that help us “unlock”  more confidence in our parenting with a toolkit of parenting ideas, whilst at the same time increasing our self-compassion, emotional regulation, self-care, and identity as parents.



the 6 P Keys diagram


The Guilty Parent Club


If you are interested in finding out more about the 6 Keys, and how they can help you escape the cycle of parent stress and guilt, take a look at The Guilty Parent Club. You can find out more about it and how to sign up here.


We work through the Keys step-by-step together in a group of like-minded parents, via bite-sized podcasts and live Q&A sessions. The alchemy of the science-based ideas plus parents sharing together is just... wonderful.


Have a look at the Testimonials slideshow to see feedback from parents in the current cohort to see what they think (spoiler: they love it and it works :)


I hope this article has helped you start to reduce the power that guilt or shame has over you as a parent. Let me know what you think below.


And I'd love you to join our next cohort of The Guilty Parent Club - see you there?


Jo


the guilty parent club logo

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