October 03rd, 2016
If you had a child start school or nursery for the first time this term I hope they trotted off happily without a backwards glance. But if they didn’t you may have felt helpless and even guilty as they grappled with uncomfortable emotions. Many parents feel it is their job to keep their children happy all the time. But we can’t do this. In fact it is our job to help our children manage these uncomfortable feelings, realise they are part of being human, we all have them, they pass, and in fact they’re not all bad because we can learn from them. Becoming aware of our own feelings is the first step in developing empathy for others.
If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t assuage your child’s upset there are two things that may reassure you:
Parents are good at guilt. It may be the most common emotion we experience around parenting. I have the feeling that mums experience it more than dads but maybe that’s because I’m a mum. What do you think, dads?
What do we feel guilty about?
When I asked a group of parents they said they felt their role was to provide the best for their kids and a lot of their guilt was when they didn’t live up to this standard. What does that mean?
My test group said what it meant to them was providing:
What does it mean to you?
Expectations of ourselves as parents are very high. It starts early and can be fuelled by information available on the internet. We may plague ourselves with questions like: Did I do the wrong thing in allowing my baby to cry/not wearing him in a sling/not co-sleeping?
Access to information is now unprecedented and we don’t have to look far for evidence that we are screwing up our kids! Ericka Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and Harvard College Administrator speaking at the Aspen Festival of Ideas in 2012 said “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age’, where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy”. She referred to the fact that the British Medical Journal not too long ago prohibited the word ‘accident’ in their reporting, because they argued that really are almost no accidents, ie incidents are avoidable. The logical conclusion is that it is the job of parents to avoid them.
Christakis continued, this view is that if you look at the antecedents for almost all bad things that happen to us in life, including famines and droughts, and children getting hit by cars, and suicide, that these are really preventable injuries. She said this leads to a huge shift in how we view childhood, because if we're starting to think that all these bad things are preventable then every time you decide not to put a helmet on your child when they're riding a scooter on the pavement you start feeling like a neglectful person. It creates a lot of anxiety to live in a world where we feel so responsible as parents.
At the same event Lawrence J. Cohen, Psychologist and author of Playful Parenting added “There's a taboo against putting a price on the safety of your child. And I think we have the same taboo on [aiming] at anything less than the absolute pinnacle of success, and if we don't then we're short-changing our children.”
This sense of responsibility and attendant guilt is fuelled by a propensity to criticise parents.
Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs noted that “We're so culturally prone to beat up parents”. If you go onto any online platform for parents you will see a lot of blame and judgment for parents, from other parents!
It’s worth noting here that there is a difference between shame and guilt and how those emotions make us behave. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, a judgement about myself as a person, whereas guilt is the feeling I get when I’ve done a bad thing, a judgment about my actions. When we feel shame we can feel worthless and then may lash out or try to avoid the situation. Feelings of shame are very linked to our sense of self-worth –what we believe about ourselves and our value. “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be” - Gandhi. Your thoughts about yourself shape your reality.
When we feel guilty about our actions we tend to experience regret and want to make amends. We think “I am a good person who made a mistake”. Guilt could actually be a good thing if it is a catalyst for change
Sherry Bevan, author or The Confident Mother, said “When we feel guilt, there is always a reason. The purpose of guilt is to tell us that we are hurting someone or doing something wrong.” She quotes Audre Lorde’s from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “Guilt is … a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”
Shame is not useful if my feelings about myself stop action.
It may be helpful to reflect on the reason for feeling guilt and decide what you can do to stop feeling guilty. Sherry mused “Assuming of course you want to stop feeling guilty. I sometimes wonder whether some people don’t enjoy feeling guilty. As if they enjoy being punished or feel like they deserve to be punished. Perhaps for some former ‘crime’ they committed”.
If you are feeling guilty about something, first get clear on what exactly you are feeling guilty about. Then ask yourself whether your guilt makes sense? If somebody else was in the same situation and said "I feel really guilty about xyz", would you think their guilt was justified?
If the answer is yes, what can you do to stop the guilty feelings? Are you expecting too much of yourself or of others? Are you trying to do too many things at the same time? And if the answer is no, if the guilt isn't justified, stop wasting time feeling guilty.
When you think of guilt as a catalyst, it stops being negative and you can use it to make a change for the positive.
My friend Caroline Ferguson who is a wonderful mindset trainer, suggests doing the following when we feel guilty:
My last practical tips:
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