Parental Guilt: How Love Leaves Us Vulnerable

June 25, 2020

Are we wired for parental guilt? I remember the moment I found out I was pregnant, my initial rush of joy and excitement was quickly stolen by pangs of guilt… “Have I been on prenatal vitamins long enough?” More broadly understood as the age-old parenting question: “Have I screwed them up?” Those little moments have continued: “Is he too young for time-outs?”, “Was that too much screen time?”, and “Did he eat that whole ice cream cone?” Granted, my son is now six…I know it is only going to get more complicated from here.

I was introduced to Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) three years ago by its co-creator Adele Lafrance, PhD. While I was drawn to all the concepts, the Caregiver Blocks module resonated most. It’s rooted in the idea that the very emotions that bond us to our loved ones can also block or paralyze our efforts to help them. We experience parental guilt out of our great love for children; our desire to support, guide and protect. If we did not hold great empathy and compassion for our kids, then the ‘I did something bad’ may never become the more immobilizing ‘I am bad’. When does guilt become the more paralyzing self-blame or shame? How do those more intense emotions affect our ability to parent?

In my work as a pediatric psychologist, I witness the greatest examples of the impenetrable parent-child connection. I truly believe many of the parents I support would walk through fire to save their kids from their mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Yet, out of that great connection I also see great missteps. Parents aiding their child’s efforts to avoid distress at all costs. Parents criticizing their child for not improving quickly enough. Parents withdrawing from participating in their child’s treatment sessions or groups. Do these parents just not ‘get it’?

I have learned that it is the opposite…they ‘get it’, they ‘feel it’ and they are paralyzed by the idea that they could ‘make it worse.’ The wounds of parental guilt that can motivate us to do better can also fester and result in worse injury. We can be left feeling unworthy, unlovable, and incredibly unsure. No one makes their best decisions from that place. Instead, we triage, we bandage, and we trudge forward…even when we have lost sight of the destination.

So, how do we work with the intense emotions that arise in parenting? How do we avoid this ‘block’ to become the parent our kids need, and we want to embody?

  • First, hit pause and breathe. Emotions need air, and our brains need to get out of the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response that can come with attempts to support, guide and protect our most important connections. That’s right – breathe in for four and out for four. Repeat.
  • Second, pay attention. Learn your tells. How does your body respond to this highly emotional state? Do you feel hot? Do you clench your jaw? Do you wear your shoulders like earrings? Do your thoughts swarm like bees kicked out of a hive? Does your mind go blank like someone just wiped off a whiteboard? These are the sensations of a parent who deeply loves their child.
  • Third, get curious. Why now? What just happened? What are you worried will happen next…both the rational and irrational outcomes? What is the worst possible outcome? How will that be bad for your child? How will that be bad for you?
  • Last, talk it out. Start with someone you trust, then with your child. Sometimes this can happen in this moment, and sometimes it has wait until later. Sometimes that pause button from the first step needs to stay on for a few minutes, to a few hours, while you seek support and determine the next best step. Sometimes it requires you to go back, own that you were not your ‘best self’ back there, and now you need a ‘do over.’Whatever happens, don’t let these moments go by without learning, engaging, and loving… both your child and yourself. Just like your child’s, your emotional world deserves air space, attention and care. Turn toward it, not away from it. Our parental emotions, whether it’s guilt, shame, helplessness, or fear are gifts. They are natural symbols that something is happening worth paying attention to… and could result in some of the greatest expressions of our love for our kids and a deepened connection with them.

So yes, we are wired for guilt… and self-blame and shame and all the rest. We are wired for connection. We are wired to love our kids.

Elizabeth Easton, Psy.D., CEDS is a clinical psychologist and the Regional Clinical Director of Child & Adolescent Services/Co-Director of the Family Institute at Eating Recovery Center, and consults on national ERC Child and Adolescent programs. Dr. Easton is certified as an Eating Disorder Specialist and a certified Advanced Psychotherapist & Supervisor in Emotion-Focused Family Therapy, and has dedicated her career to the power of caregivers as the agents of change and healing for their loved ones. CLICK HERE for more information on Eating Recovery Center.