Am I a Bad Parent? 5 Common Reasons Parents Feel Guilty

Am I a Bad Parent? 5 Common Reasons Parents Feel Guilty


It’s Important to Understand That No Parent is Perfect.

By Dr. Kurt Smith 

Being a parent comes with unmeasured joy. It’s hard to explain the love you feel for your child and the happiness they bring. It’s also hard to explain the constant guilt or nagging feeling that you’re not doing enough or doing something wrong that many parents feel as well.

As parents, we do this to ourselves routinely. The “shoulda, woulda, coulda’s” that are accompanied by worries we are doing everything wrong and dooming our kids to years of therapy to fix what we messed up can leave parents second-guessing every decision they make. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Why We Experience Parental Guilt

The first thing you need to realize is that one of the reasons you feel this guilt is you love your child and you take your responsibility seriously, and that’s a good thing. The second thing you need to realize is that parental guilt is something we all feel. It doesn’t matter if you send your kids to the best schools or feed them the most nutritious food – it still happens. The responsibility of shaping the life of another human being can be daunting and there is no handbook that tells you if you’re doing it right or wrong. (One of the worst-kept secrets out there is that there is no real right or wrong at all.)

Of course, there are some good general guidelines and overall truths about healthy behavior. For example, don’t let them play in traffic or eat sugar packets, and do make sure they learn manners and eat the occasional vegetable. And although most of us go far beyond those very, very basic suggestions, we will still ultimately feel guilty about whether we are measuring up and doing the best that can be done.

Parental guilt has existed as long as there have been parents. Our current state of constant connection, however, has made it exponentially worse. The Facebook posts of all those fantastic mothers crafting, scheduling, and lovingly connecting with their near-perfect kids, and the dads attending every game and recital, teaching their kids to skateboard, and spending blissful “quality” time with their children are enough to make the best of us feel like failures. It’s obviously clear they are all parenting perfectly and even more clear that you’re not, right? Nope.

Sadly, people often hide behind social media rather than using it to support one another on common issues – but that’s another topic altogether. The truth is that if you’re reading this, concerned with being the best parent possible, and suffering from parental guilt, you’re likely doing things as well as anyone else is out there.

So why do you still feel so guilty? There are many reasons besides those above that parents feel guilty when it comes to raising their children. The guilt has to do with the difference between our ideals and our reality – things are rarely the way we imagined they would be. The most common sources of guilt can be broken down into some primary categories – time, discipline, health, and technology. Most of the parental guilt we experience will come from feeling that we have somehow fallen short in one of these categories.

This one is rather self-explanatory. Is there really any parent who feels like they have consistently spent enough time with their children? Whether it’s work, your own needs, or their schedules, something will always lead you to feel like you’ve shorted your kids on time. Should you have read one more story? Have left work a little earlier? Or maybe you feel selfish (and guilty) for taking time for a date night and not including the kids? Ideally, you’d have time for everything.

This is a big one. Are you too hard or too easy on them? Looking at their sad little faces as you hand out punishment, or hearing “I hate you!” as you take away privileges is never easy. Nor is feeling that you missed an opportunity to show them that actions have consequences. This category bleeds into the idea of allowing them to fail and experience the repercussions of their own behavior. Determining when to drop the hammer and when to go lightly on things is tough. And as parents, we often second-guess our choices. Ideally, you’d feel comfortable the punishment fit the crime, your children would immediately learn their lessons, and after thinking about it would thank you for your fair and just reaction. Have you rolled your eyes yet?

To go to the doctor or not to go to the doctor – that is the question. At least one that many parents will ask themselves over the years. When it comes to proper nutrition, exercise, vitamins, sports, injuries, etc. it can be a real balancing act. Are you over-reacting? Should you let them have a brownie? Do a bag of veggie straws and mac-n-cheese count as dinner? Do they really need to eat ALL that broccoli? How many sports are too many to join? Should you make them participate in team sports? Is that tummy ache something or nothing? Ideally, they would eat the well-balanced meal you had TIME to prepare, enjoy one or two team sports, clearly articulate any urgent medical need, and grow up (and out) according to the optimal growth chart.

Screens, screens, and more screens. Technology poses a new problem, and sometimes a new opportunity, for many parents. How much is too much? And should you really trust your trustworthy kid to stay away from inappropriate sites? But wait – there are lots of learning opportunities using technology now, does learning and enrichment count toward “screen time?” or is it just the games and such? Ideally, they would do their homework with the permitted technology then put down the screens, read the classics, and then go outside for fresh air. Minecraft challenged that ideal for many of us a few years ago.

Paragraphs could be written about each of the above categories and the complex considerations for each. And it should be noted that those aren’t the only areas where parents experience guilt, but they are the biggest and most common.

So, what can a parent do?

What To Do About Parental Guilt

First, check your expectations and self-talk. And do it routinely. No one or nothing places parental guilt on us – we do it to ourselves.

Second, understand that you can’t control everything in your child’s environment. And third, accept that you will make mistakes – there is no getting around that.

Your mistakes won’t be intentional, and you may not even realize them until later, but they will happen. They will happen partially because you’re human and it’s unavoidable, and partially because although your child is yours, they are not you. You are parenting another human being whose thoughts, reactions, and temperaments are out of your control. And when you are managing the multiple facets of your own life, of which they are an enormous part to be sure, and trying to do your best, sometimes your best will miss the mark a bit.

It’s important for every parent to find a way to occasionally stop and put things in perspective. There are times when your guilt may be warranted and times when you are being harder on yourself than necessary.

Being emotionally abusive, for instance, is unacceptable and must be stopped. Guilt for actions that may have hurt your child psychologically, actions that were within your control, is a natural consequence. But guilt over giving your kids chicken nuggets for dinner yet again isn’t necessary. Let it go.

As parents, we need to understand our primary goal – to love, protect, provide for, and raise healthy, well-balanced, and productive humans. And we need to recognize that the pathway to achieving that has common elements, but is unique for each of us. Fretting over, and feeling guilty about, every area where you think you may have been able to do a little better is counterproductive and unhealthy and will take away from that primary goal. So, look for support from your tribe of fellow parents and continue to do your best. And never be afraid to seek help when you need it, because we all need it at some point, and someone will eventually ask the same of you.


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