The stories may differ, but the result is similar. It usually starts with a parent who has done some bad things in their life: significant drug abuse, prison time, abuse or neglect of their child, or just not being in their child’s life for a long period of time. Sometimes it may be over things that the parent had little control over the death of an important person in the child’s life or exposing their child to a separation or divorce.
The parent sees the anger or the sadness that the child experienced around these events. The parent begins to feel sorry for what the child has gone through.
One of the hardest things as a parent is seeing your child in some sort of pain whether it is physical or emotional. A natural desire as a parent is to take away the pain for their child. What happens though is this takes the form of trying to help their child feel better usually by indulging them in some way. This may be giving them things that they would not typically give them on a regular basis such as gifts.
Another way this plays out is parents allowing their children to do things that they may not normally allow them to do because they feel guilty about what their child is gone through. As a result, the parent wants to reduce their guilt by trying to make their child feel better. While this may make sense on some level, it sets the stage for problems in the parent-child relationship.
As I’ve talked with parents about this dynamic, almost all of them are aware that they do this. For many of them, the guilt about what they have put their child through is overwhelming. The result is not only are they wanting their child to feel better, but the parent is wanting to feel better as well. The unfortunate part of this is that it almost never works. The guilt that comes with this cannot be solved by gifts or giving into their child. More often than not it can only be solved by the parent learning to forgive themselves for what they have done.
Over time, what is set up is often a child making increasing demands on their parent. They may want more time with friends or a later bedtime or their parent to get them something. The child becomes more emboldened to ask for these things because they have found it works. The child then starts to look more like an entitled child who will tantrum, whine, or complain when the parent doesn’t do what they want them to do. These children often do not help around the house or do with the parent asks them to do. The parent feels more and more ineffective while the child feels more and more emboldened.
I often ask parents who experience a large amount of guilt about their past this question: “How will you know when you have made up to your child for all the sins of your past?” Most parents are silent after I asked this question. They have never considered an endpoint to this guilt they are experiencing.
Here are the steps you need to take to get control back in your home.
1. Forgive yourself. There may have been any number of reasons you chose the behaviors you did that resulted in the guilt you are currently experiencing. Guilt is often the result of a mismatch between how we acted and how we believe we should act.
I am not suggesting this is the easy process. With parents who are going through this, I often encourage them to clarify often through writing what it would take for them to forgive themselves for what they have done. This usually results in conversations they need to have with loved ones in terms of seeking forgiveness for what they have done. There is then work that needs to be done on their own beliefs that have shaped this guilt. While some parents are able to do this on their own, a skilled therapist or a caring friend can really help you sort through this in a way that would be difficult to do on your own. They will offer you a perspective that will likely be helpful in allowing you to move past the guilt you are experiencing.
2. Stop indulging your child. While this sounds simple, in reality, it rarely is. Your child has gotten use to you acting in a way that often has allowed them to get what they want. When you begin to set limits and no longer decide to parent by guilt, your child will often have a negative reaction to that. They may try to guilt you into giving in. They may even call you names. The key to getting through this is having a plan and sticking to it. A plan often involves supportive people and clear expectations on what you want your child to do.
3. Make sure you are addressing current behaviors that may be causing you guilt. If how you have acted when you been drinking is a source of guilt for you, you cannot continue to overindulge in alcohol and expect that that guilt is going to go away. You need to do the work on yourself to become the parent you want to be. This may be giving up bad habits as well as how are you going to act in a way that is more consistent with how you would like to be.
When we act in a way that is consistent with how we want to be, there is very little guilt that can enter into the situation to distract us from what we need to do as a parent.
The bottom line in all this is to stop parenting by guilt and start parenting by choice. Parenting by guilt is often reactive parenting. Parenting by choice is intentional and planned. It is proactive parenting.
To do this you will need to have patience and grace to get through the process. There is hope on the other side. I’ve seen many parents navigate this change and as a result, become a much better parent to their child. Doesn’t your child deserve you as the best parent you can be to them?