Why we experience Parent Guilt – Insights from a Psychologist
This type of guilt can be understood as a feeling that you are not doing enough as a parent. You might have a sense that your parenting is not meeting your child’s needs, that you’re not coping, or that your actions are negatively affecting your child in the long run.
Guilt is a natural experience and can help us recognise and learn from our mistakes. However, it doesn’t help your parenting when it causes you to feel inadequate. As psychologists, we know that it can be overwhelming when you are stuck in a headspace where you want the best for your child, but feel that whatever you do is not good enough.
In this advice blog, we will explore the signs and common reasons why parents experience guilt. We will also look at the psychological research into the impact of parent guilt, and link to proven ways to help you cope.
Signs that you are experiencing Parent Guilt
Parents who struggle with persistant feelings of guilt may notice the following signs:
- Blame themselves when things go wrong, without reflecting on the big picture
- Struggle to be decisive or confident in their parenting
- Feel persistently angry, anxious or irritable
- Find it difficult to enjoy experiences with their child, or notice what they are doing well as a parent
- Feel overwhelmed and like they are constantly struggling to cope
It is understandable that questioning yourself and your ability as a parent can drain your self-confidence and negatively impact your well-being. You might find that you often ask yourself:
- Am I doing this right?
- Am I a good parent?
- Am I doing enough now to help my child in the future?
- Why am I struggling to cope when everyone else seems to just get on with it?
Common things that parents feel guilty about
What parents feel guilty about can vary from age to developmental stage. A 2017 national survey of 2,000 parents of school-aged children in the US (commissioned by FarmRich.com) found that the top ten things parents feel guilty about include:
- Losing my temper
- Not playing enough with my children
- Not being home enough
- Letting my children have too much screen time
- When I don’t feel like I’m being a good role model
- Not being able to take my children on more vacations or outings
- When I don’t have time to make home-cooked meals
- Not reading enough to and with my children
- Letting my kids eat junk food
- Working too much
An online European study conducted by the name label manufacturer My Nametags in 2020, found that the most common cause of parental guilt in Ireland was allowing children to have too much screen time. The participants reported that other causes included not spending enough quality time with their children (42%), losing their temper with their children (39%), not playing with them enough (37%), and not seeing them enough due to working long hours (31%). Over one in 10 Irish parents felt guilty about relying on other people to look after their children and things like spending time on their phone, societys expectations, and how their parents raised them were sources of selfblame and worry.
So why do we experience Parent Guilt
One of the most common contributors to parent guilt are the pressures we face from the myth of the perfect parent. If I’m continually failing to meet these internal (and external!) expectations, it is inevitable that I will feel disappointed, frustrated and struggle to aknowledge my achievements. Early experiences and how you were parented can also influence our internal expectations, and it is common to find that your inner critic is activated when you experience these strong feelings of failure.
It’s also important to aknowledge that some parents are more likely to experience parent guilt, especially given the difference in the demands they face or the resources that they have available to them.
New parents can experience strong feelings of guilt as they struggle to adjust to parenthood. There can be a sudden identity shift for both parents and this can place unexpected pressures on their wellbeing & relationship. As psychologists, we often notice that parents who previously felt a high level of control over their life experience (i.e. in their job, relationships, financially etc) can feel guilty that they are now struggling to adjust to parenthood. Some studies have shown that a mother’s brain shows growth in certain areas such as the amygdala (the emotions centre) , which is believed to enhance their sensitivity to their baby’s needs. Whilst this can be a positive adjustment, it can make a new mother acutely aware of threat and cause emotions such as guilt feel more potent and overwhelming.
Single parents are more likely to experience guilt due to the increased pressures on their parenting and reduced supports. Common causes of guilt for single parents can include feeling like they don’t have enough time for their child, the impact of the separation or partner conflict on the family, and feeling like they can’t afford the extras or ‘keep up’ with two-parent families.
- Understanding & managing parent guilt (8 mins)
- How our experience of being parented can influence our parenting (4 mins)
- Why we criticise ourselves (6 mins)
- Parenting Myths (4 mins)
- Good enough is good enough (The myth of the perfect parent) (9 mins)
What’s the impact of Parent Guilt
We know that persistent feelings of guilt can have a negative impact on our well-being, mental health and our confidence in our parenting. But this type of guilt has also been shown to influence our parental behaviour.
A parent who selfblames can struggle to coach their child through big emotions, as they absorb the majority of responsibility for what has happened and might find it difficult to hold a more realistic ‘big picture’ perspective. So a parent who feels guilty that their child is struggling to make or maintain friendships in school, might blame themselves for not preparing their child in the ‘right way’ or for not helping them make friends earlier. This guilt can keep that parents thoughts in the past, and make it difficult to see the current situation and what might be needed to support their child in this moment.
Some parents become overprotective and try to protect their child from every potential risk or threat. This can feed anxiety for both parent and child, and lead them to avoid new or uncomfortable situations.
Feelings of guilt can also lead parents to be more lenient and inconsistent in their management of their child’s behaviour. Think of the parent who blames themselves for their childs meltdowns or their teenagers sudden withdrawal from family life. It can feel like one way to alleviate this selfblame is to treat your child to more positive experiences, reduce demands like chores, or buy things that make them feel calm/happy. However this short-term focus is unlikely to meet the underlying need that your child is expressing through their behaviour, which is why it is so helpful to notice how feelings of guilt might be driving your parenting decisions.
What can we do to cope?
There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to reducing or coping with parent guilt. However, we know that there are a range of tools and proven strategies that can help. For more detailed advice on how to cope with parent guilt, check our our Psychology Blog here.
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