Feeling guilty can sometimes be useful. It can motivate parents to question the way they do things and their own behaviours.
By Nathalie Vallerand
“At the end of each day, I tell myself that I didn’t spend enough time with my kids, that I didn’t have any fun with them,” complains Marie-Ève, mother to 6-year-old Mia, 2-year-old Nolan, 7-month-old Romain, and a 13-year-old teenager. “I’ve got so many things to do! And it’ll only get worse once my maternity leave ends. I also feel guilty for imposing consequences on my kids when they misbehave and for making my youngest eat store-bought baby food, when I made it at home for the others.”
What parent hasn’t experienced these typical feelings of guilt? Anika, for example, works from home, which lets 6-year-old Ann-Charlotte and 4-year-old Louis-Félix enjoy more relaxed mornings. But she still feels pangs of guilt when she has to bring her kids in to daycare earlier than usual, even if it’s for a good reason: she volunteers for the Breakfast Club twice a month. On the other hand, Claudine feels guilty for not playing with 5-year-old Thomas and 2-year-old Leah enough. “I don’t always have the time or the inclination to crawl around on all fours or to play hide-and-seek.”
Geneviève Henry, an intervention worker for LigneParents, receives a lot of calls from parents experiencing guilt for all kinds of reasons. “Raising kids is a huge responsibility. Parents want to do the right things, but are afraid of making mistakes or of not being able to give the best to their children. Some parents may feel guilty.” Sometimes, this guilt comes from taking on too much responsibility and forgetting that being a parent is also a team effort.
But feeling guilty can sometimes be useful. “It can motivate parents to question the way they do things and their own behaviours,” explains psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “This thought process can lead to changes that may be necessary, or on the contrary, can help a parent realize that there’s no need to feel guilty.”
That said, if guilt becomes too overwhelming, there’s a problem. If you’re under the impression that you never do anything right, you may end up doubting your parenting abilities. As a result, you may lose some of your self-esteem. And because you’re a role model for your children, this may in turn mean that your child will have a harder time developing a positive self-image.
Feeling guilty about everything also leads to stress and fatigue. These emotions then take a huge toll on you, and make it difficult to think things through, come up with appropriate decisions, or simply enjoy happy family moments. “Because they feel guilty, some parents overcompensate by becoming too permissive,” Henry adds. But children need rules and routines to feel safe.
Some strategies to keep the guilt at bay:
- Allow yourself to try things. It’s normal to not always get everything right the first time. To find out what’s best for your child, you may need to try different ways of doing things. Give yourself the right to make mistakes, because it’s more than likely that you’ll get things wrong sometimes.
- Keep things in perspective. Most of the time, the situation isn’t as dire as you think. Is it the end of the world if your child has a stain on their clothes today? If you don’t like playing toy cars with them? If you arrived a little late? Ask yourself: what does any of this mean in a lifetime? This will help you gain some perspective.
- Enjoy each small moment with your child. Your daily routines and rituals are great opportunities to spend quality time with your child (when they tell you about their day at supper, during bath time, or at story time right before bed, etc.). You can also turn everyday tasks into a game, as Claudine does when she asks Thomas and Leah to help her set the table. Some other ideas: have your child count the number of cans of food that need to be put on the shelf, sing nursery rhymes while giving them their bath, ask your son to fold the towels while you fold the rest of the laundry, etc.
- Team up with your child’s other parent and accept help from others. You don’t have to shoulder the burden of parenting alone. Sitting down with your partner and reviewing how you share household chores, the mental load, and childcare responsibilities can help you feel less like you’re on the hook for everything. It’s also a good idea to let others take over when you need a break.
- Take time for yourself. Doing something you enjoy (taking a walk, visiting a friend, playing a sport, etc.) will help you recharge your batteries and feel more emotionally grounded.
- Don’t question all your skills when the going gets tough. You aren’t a worse parent just because you’re going through a hard time (extra stress at work, losing a job, separating from your partner, etc.).