This past week we’ve discovered that one of my kids has been living with a significant hearing impairment for some time. I, being the attentive, in tune and observant mother that I am – had no flipping idea. I only took him to the appointment because his Dad was concerned, and the kids and I happened to have a morning free.
Of course once the results were in (and naturally this was in front of the hearing professional), my child told me that his teacher has regularly been frustrated with him for not paying attention (first I’ve heard of it); that apparently all the headphones in our house “are broken” (I’d already bought him four pairs); and that the teacher he hears the best at school is coincidentally the one who has an amplification system in her room (okay, maybe he mentioned that. Once.).
The audiologist asked if I’d noticed he didn’t hear people speaking in a whisper or low volume…”no”, I said. During my late night rumination over the last few days, it has occurred to me that perhaps I never noticed this issue because I tend to use…ahem…fairly healthy levels of volume when I talk with my children!!
Yes, in case you are wondering, I do feel terrible. Terrible.
Okay, so let’s talk about parent guilt.
Working with families with children with various struggles here, our child/adolescent psychologists talk with many parents who feel overwhelmed by parent guilt. We talk to parents who feel guilty because they wonder whether:
They’ve been too harsh with their children.
They’ve not spent enough time with their children.
They’ve not done enough of something with their children to help them in some way.
They’ve caused their children to suffer/have long term problems.
They haven’t done enough to fix/alleviate struggles their child has.
They don’t/can’t provide them with enough possessions/support/services.
We hear parents often say:
“I should/shouldn’t have….”
“Maybe if I had…..”
“If I was more like…..”
“If only I had….”
So parent guilt is entirely normal. Sure it doesn’t affect everyone, but for many thousands of parents it rears its ugly head all the time.
But here’s the most important thing to understand about parent guilt: IT DOES NOT HELP.
Parent guilt doesn’t help us and it doesn’t help our kids. Here’s why: Guilt = distress. When we are distressed as humans, several things happen.
We are less capable of thinking clearly.
We are more likely to act without thinking things through.
We are less capable of clear decision-making.
All of this means parent guilt is likely to lead to more – not less – parent mistakes.
Feeling guilty about feeling guilty yet?? :)
It’s true that we don’t have full control over whether we feel guilty or not. We can’t just flick a switch and turn it off. Parent guilt is something that’s hard to beat. (Just ask the mother who bought five sets of headphones for her child instead of getting a hearing assessment).
But for all the reasons listed above, as parents we MUST fight back against parent guilt.
Here’s four calming and soothing statements you can use to cope with parent guilt.
- Parents are learners.
Parenting is a complex, intricate, difficult, wearying and emotional draining task. There are many intricate and complex child development and parenting issues that matter for our kids. Every child is different.
Because parents are learners, it means we will continually make mistakes. We all do. We learn from them, our children learn from them and we move on. I have an image I’ve posted on the Devloping Minds Facebook page several times and it says: Children don’t need perfect parents. They need parents who acknowledge and learn from mistakes.
Something which helped me this week was that our audiologist said her son was significantly hearing impaired and she didn’t notice until he was 4. Let me just repeat that little gold nugget: An AUDIOLOGIST didn’t notice that her son was deaf. Oops.
Parents are learners.
- Parents are not all-powerful.
As much as it would be nice to think that we have full, 100% control over our child’s struggles – we don’t. Children are born with their own partly predetermined personalities, brains and bodies. We have some influence over these things – but this influence is more limited than we often think. Regardless of the kind of parenting we do, how we interact with them and what mistakes we do or don’t make – children are going to have their own individual responses to that parenting.
Some children will struggle with food – whatever or however we feed them. Some children are going to struggle with frustration management – however often we talk and coach them through it. Some children are going to struggle with learning – however many books we read them and the tutoring we do. Some children are going to struggle with needing love and attention – however much we give them. Some children are going to hurt themselves regardless of what kind of monitoring we do of them. Some children are going to be anxious regardless of how calm we are around them.
And children are going to be diagnosed with all kinds of conditions – whatever we have or have not done with them as parents.
Parents are not all-powerful.
- Children are resilient.
I read a study once which showed that children who had experienced adversity in childhood had better coping skills as adults. Certainly this is something we see repeatedly here in the clinic. Children who have challenges to manage, who have imperfect situations to live with, imperfect people around them and who have to struggle with life situations - learn a great deal about life and coping with challenge.
If you reflect on your own life, I’m sure you’ll agree that we learn a lot more from our struggles, worries and challenges than we do from our happy moments.
Children are the same. The challenges they face provide them with skills, learning, empathy and knowledge. The struggles they have do not need to break them. Their hard times do not need to define who they are or what their lives mean. Children have happy, meaningful and important parts of their lives – despite (and sometimes because of) their challenges.
Children are resilient.
- Focus Forward
Parent guilt is about the past – what did we/have we done wrong. This focus is not a helpful one. What IS helpful for our children, is thinking about the future. What do we want to do tomorrow? What do we want to do or not do tomorrow? What is the next goal we have for ourselves/our children? What extra help can we get? What’s next?
When parents talk with me about their guilt about not spending enough time with their child, yelling at their children, not doing enough to help them manage anxiety, schoolwork or any other challenge: I first talk with them about the three things listed above.
And then I ask them if they want or feel capable of making any small changes to what they can do tomorrow.
With a plan, and small, achievable and specific goals for the next week – guilt is likely to lessen.
Parents are learners.
Parents are not all powerful.
Children are resilient.
Write these down, put them in your phone and repeat them to yourself as much as needed.
Good luck managing your own parent guilt. Keep working on it. Please know that there are thousands of parents around you who are managing the same thing. I’m with you too.
– Kirrilie Smout, Clinical Psychologist Specialising in supporting Kids and Teens
Kirrilie helps kids and teens develop resilience, cope with tough times, feel better about themselves and manage worry, stress, frustration and sadness. Kirrilie works with a team of adolescent and child focussed psychologists at Developing Minds in two locations in SA (City and South) and also speaks to young people and their parents and teachers in schools. More information, and free articles and resources for teachers and parents can be found at www.developingminds.net.au