One thing that all parents have in common is that at some stage of their life they will experience GUILT. Guilt about what they’ve done or not done. Guilt about what they’ve said or not said. Even guilt over what their kids have done, said, not done or achieved.
So, what does parenting guilt look like?
It’s the feeling of having done something wrong that might have had a negative impact on our child here and now or in the future. Or when feeling torn between our responsibilities as a parent and something else that is competing for our attention i.e., work, our personal interests or just life admin. Often it’s a feeling of not being good enough, feeling inadequate at our job as parents or questioning the choices we have made that affect our child’s wellbeing and future.
Why is parenting guilt bad for us and our child?
When we parent our child out of guilt or fear, rather than doing what is right or best for them, we are in danger of rewarding the wrong behaviour in order to compensate or make ourselves feel better.
When we do this, we run the risk of encouraging manipulation behaviours. Our children are clever scientists; always on the lookout to get what they want, get out of what they don’t want and will quickly tune into any weak point, and GUILT is a great target for them! For instance, if you have screamed at them or worked really long hours etc. you feel bad and will do anything to shake that guilty feeling and make the moment or your connection better. And your child knows how to get what they want by playing on that guilt.
When living overseas, away from home and family and the life we left behind parental guilt can REALLY pile on. In this case it’s even more important to become aware of our guilt and know what to do with it so it doesn’t affect the way we parent and how our kids develop.
Expat parents often struggle with additional guilt:
1. Language barriers: maybe we never taught our kids one of their grandparent’s languages and now when we go ‘home’ they find it hard to integrate and communicate with their extended or close family. It might be as they grow older that they start blaming you and ask, ‘why didn’t you teach us?’.
2. Local language: perhaps you feel guilty when your kids can’t join in as easily when the local kids are playing together. Or it’s hard to get involved with a local club or activity or feel comfortable going outside because they don’t understand what’s going on around them.
3. Distance from family: we might have missed out on lots of family get-togethers and moments. I was talking to a mum who felt so bad that she had ‘taken her son’ so far away from her parents and deprived them and her son of seeing each other more often.
4. Living a different lifestyle than to those ‘at home’: it may be that living overseas has allowed you a more affluent lifestyle than you had at home, and it can seem remote from your friends and family’s lives. Parents sometimes feel guilt over the way they can raise their children: private schools, expensive activities, the latest greatest gear, nice holidays etc.
5. When relocating regularly: this can be a really hard one as you might feel that they never get to experience a stable home. You worry about what kind of kids you are raising, their emotional stability and how they will feel about the life you had as a family.
6. When moving kids from a stable life to a new uncertain one: it can be so hard to make that decision to take our family away from their friends, schools etc. I was working with a family who was moving with their three kids to Spain to take up a big job opportunity. Their children were at good schools, had close friends, activities they enjoyed etc. so they felt really guilty uprooting them and taking all that away from them. We worked on the guilt and the HOW to relocate in a way that caused less instability and more positive opportunities. CLICK here to read more about how to create connection when living as an expat family.
7. Splitting the family: maybe one of the parents has to work long hours or travel often which means that the family life you hoped for isn’t there anymore. I really felt this when my husband was suddenly not there most of the time Monday to Friday.
Challenging your parenting guilt
1. Identify the triggers to this guilt. What areas make you feel guilty? Long working hours? Your anger and reactions to your kids’ behaviours? Your child’s additional needs such as ADHD, ADD etc. – a physical need or emotional challenge – you might feel sorry for them and guilty that you might have somehow caused the situation? That you live far away from your own family? That your child has to move frequently? That you never spoke your native language to your child? That your life is so different from your friends and family back home?
2. Then ask yourself: ‘how does this guilt affect the way I parent? Do you do too much for them? Allow them to get away with more screen time, eating too many sweets and junk food etc. Give them too much, i.e., mobile phones and tech devices, toys, money etc. Or worse, say YES when you mean NO, knowing that your child’s request should not be granted, but you say YES out of guilt. Unfortunately, these response behaviours from you can often make you feel MORE guilty – as deep down you know you are sometimes not doing the best thing for your child. And of course, we are then in danger of creating ‘manipulation behaviours.
How to tackle your guilt
1. Don’t compare yourself to others:
- It might be that when you look around it looks like everyone is looking so happy, doing well and has a perfect family life. Maybe they do, and good for them. But most likely they have their issues as well. And remember, all our kids are unique so what works for others might not work for you, your values, your child, or your family set-up.
- Social media: Not everything you see on social media is the full story, people aren’t posting about the times they lost their temper, screamed at their child, felt bad over the life they live etc. Also, if we are living abroad and see families or friends at home getting together when we are not there, we really feel guilt and feel sorry for our child for missing out. But try to focus on those times when you ARE at home with family and friends and connecting and participating, i.e., Christmas, Easter, summer etc. – it’s OK to not be able to do it all. My brother and sister live around the corner from my parents, and they don’t go to every family gathering!
2. Reframe your thoughts:
- I know how easy it is to get into a negative spiral but that is not helpful and can actually make the guilt worse. Remind yourself, ‘we can never get it totally right and become the perfect parent who raises perfect kids’. After all we are just humans, and humans make mistakes. I can only do my best and that is good enough. What is done in love IS done well. I AM doing my best (if you feel you aren’t then you will benefit from the last activity).
- I am not alone with these feelings: remind yourself that most parents at some stage will feel guilty and that they are not good enough. You are not alone feeling this way – it comes with the job! No one said that parenting was going to be easy.
- Put things in perspective: feeling guilt doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. For example, if you are feeling guilty about living far away from family – put it in perspective and think that maybe when you DO see each other it is for a longer period of time, and you get to create a stronger connection. When my kids were growing up, we saw my parents three times a year (at Christmas, Easter and during the summer holidays) but it was often for weeks at a time. By just adding up the days they saw my kids more than their other grandchildren and that time was really special because they got to hang out for longer periods of time and really get to know them.
And don’t forget, you are giving your kids an amazing opportunity to see the world, to meet new cultures, be exposed to new languages and input – how great is that? My kids often tell me that they love being ‘international’. They don’t feel Danish or Irish, but international. They get along with all cultures, are open to travel and learning new languages. I did feel guilt along the way but they turned out more than fine!
- Do it your way: there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of parenting. There is only the way that works for you, your values, your individual child and your unique family life and set-up. Right now, you are living this family life so make it work for you and get the most out of it. Be the best parent you can with what you have and where you are.
3. Remind yourself of all the great stuff that you are also responsible for:
- You are doing better than you might think: yes, we are good at taking the blame for so many negative things but we need to also start taking the ‘blame’ when it comes to all the good stuff in our kids’ lives. Their successes, the great moments, the life experiences that you give them, the unconditional love and so on. I am not saying that you should take the credit for all your kids’ successes and achievements – but you can pat yourself on the back and think, ‘maybe, just maybe, I helped them in the right direction, to get there, make the right choices’ etc.
- What can you be proud of as a parent? What HAVE you done well – what are you doing OK? Remind yourself of these things every day, and every time parenting guilt is about to eat you up and make you do or say the wrong thing.
- Practise self-compassion and praise: every day say to yourself the things you HAVE done right. Every time you are about to beat yourself up, STOP and remind yourself of ALL the good things you are also had a hand in.
4. Can you learn and do better?
Awareness of our ‘wrongdoings’: we are not perfect. Maybe we have done some things that are not OK. When these things happen, we need to apologise and think about how we can do better in the future. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are willing to admit them, apologise (if need be), and learn from them.
What changes can you make to ease your guilt:
- About your child not learning yours or your partner’s language: well, is it too late to start now? Can you start right NOW to teach them yours or your partner’s language? Or can they take language lessons? Listen to your music, watch films in your language etc. IF you feel it is too late, so be it, you did your best and we just can’t do it all and be perfect – remind yourself of all the other great things you HAVE done for them and with them.
- Learning the local language: if your guilt is about understanding the local language, maybe you can start learning together; listen to the local radio, music etc. Kids learn really quickly, and it can be a fun thing to do together. When we lived in China, we had a teacher come to our house to teach us Chinese as a family.
- Affluent family life: it might be that you can afford a better lifestyle than before or those at home, but you are still the same person. Remember, we don’t HAVE to spoil our kids just because we have the means to do so. Just because we can afford a cleaner doesn’t mean that our kids shouldn’t do their bit and learn to be independent.
- Long working hours, away from the family: try to work on still having a family connection when you ARE together. Have regular family get-togethers/meetings (i.e., once a week or when it suits your family life) where you talk about what everyone has done this week, what is new in people’s lives, and plan the week to come. You can create a weekly meal plan together or organise a family outing where you can all be together. Make sure you are fully present – not on your mobile phone or mentally distracted when you are together – this sends the signal ‘I DO love you’, and sometimes quality over quantity is OK.
- It’s never too late to change your parenting style: no matter how old your kids are or how far you are from being the parent you want and need to be it is never too late to start afresh. Set a long-term goal, then align your everyday behaviour. Get parenting support, read parenting books and tips and so on. I was working with a parent who had two teenage children and there was a lot that he was not proud of with his way of parenting so far – but we worked on this together and created a realistic, positive new plan for them.
5. Talk to someone: talking really helps.
Either with a friend or a professional. Don’t keep the way you feel inside. It might be that you are ashamed to tell others how you feel but remember they most likely will have experienced some level of guilt as well. When we talk to others about how we feel we automatically start analysing it and sorting it out. Sometimes all it takes is to hear yourself say it out loud and you can hear that you are a good enough parent, that others feel the same or get clear on what you need to do about the guilt.
By managing parenting guilt, you can start to enjoy the life your family is living right now and get the most out of it. You can be kind to yourself and forgive yourself when needed and learn to be the parent that your children need, right now.