Guilt And Worry - Part II
Parental guilt, like worry, is a significant part of parenting. As mentioned last month, each of these emotions has positive as well as negative effects. On the positive side, parental guilt can serve to help us correct the mistakes that we might make with our children. For example, let's say you wrongly accuse your child of something and later discover that he's innocent. Your ensuing feeling of guilt can lead you to do the right thing * apologize and promise you won't hastily jump to such conclusions in the future. Guilt also has a negative side, however, and like excessive worry, can damage your child's emotional growth and hinder your effectiveness as a parent. In a sense then, there are two kinds of guilt * helpful guilt and unhelpful guilt.
Unhelpful guilt is the kind of guilt that parents often have in spite of the fact that they're either doing the best that they can, or the situation is not under their control. For example, let's assume that you have to work full time because you're a single parent. If you feel guilty that you aren't home when your child gets home from school your guilt is unhelpful. You aren't doing something wrong that your guilt is acting as a conscience about, in fact, you're doing what is in both your and your child's best interests. But acting on this kind of guilt often creates a backlash of sorts that harms both parent and child.
Maryann is a good example. A single mom since her husband abandoned her when their son was an infant, she's struggled to make ends meet by working full-time as well as taking in some free-lance work at night. Her son David, now 12, is independent enough to have a set of keys to the apartment, and often comes home from school and lets himself in. Maryann gets home around 5:30, approximately an hour after David. Many of Maryann's friends are stay at home mothers, and Maryann compares herself to them and feels guilty that she's not home when David arrives. She tries to "make it up" to David in myriad ways * when he was younger, she would buy him several toys each week, in an effort to show how much she loves him. Lately, she's taken to ordering in his favorite foods almost nightly (even though she really can't afford to) and by doing much of his homework for him when he complains that he doesn't understand it. Many times, when she has some free-lance work she needs to complete, David will insist that they don't spend enough time together and that she should sit with him while he watches his favorite TV show. Maryann will cooperate, even though she knows that it means she'll be up past midnight completing her work.
Here is a situation where Mom's unhelpful guilt has tipped the balance of power in the family. David no longer has a mother, he has a doormat * someone he can walk all over and order about. Seriously overindulged, David is not learning the skills he will need when he becomes an adult, because Maryann's permissiveness (stemming from her feelings of guilt) has caused her to refrain from setting the kinds of limits that 12 year old boys need. If Maryann continues to allow her feelings of guilt to overwhelm her in this manner, it's likely that David will begin to seriously act out in an effort to get Mom to take back her power. He may engage in high risk behaviors, like taking drugs, engaging in unprotected sex, or drinking alcohol with the hope that his mother will find out and assume a more authoritative role in the family.
Maryann is in a difficult position, as are many parents whether they're single or not. Because most parents come to their job as parent with little to no instruction, and because society is particularly unsupportive of the important role that mothers and fathers play, it's easy to worry that you're not being a good enough parent, and to feel undue guilt over circumstances that you cannot change. Like Maryann, you may react to your feelings of guilt by buying your child too many presents, letting him dictate the "house rules", or not establishing firm boundaries as to what your own needs are.
If Maryann can recognize that her guilt is unhelpful, she may be able to give David what he really needs: her love. But not in the form of overindulgence, which will make him feel as though he is in a position of power that he can't really handle. Rather, in the form of clearly defined boundaries as to what they can afford to spend on take-out food, who really should be doing the homework, and how much time she can afford to spend watching television on a night that she has an assignment to finish. Boundaries help children feel safe, secure and loved.
Excessive parental guilt makes children worry that their parents don't really have confidence in themselves, that they really don't know what they're doing. While they'll willingly take advantage of your guilt, and they may seem to enjoy the power they have, subconsciously they're terribly uncomfortable with the inappropriate power that your guilt gives them.
Clearly, because guilt can also be helpful, each situation should be examined carefully. If you're feeling guilty about something you can change (for example, if you spend excessive time on the internet instead of with your children) then it's possible your guilt is serving as a conscience and your children will benefit from your changing that circumstance to spend more time with them. However, if the circumstances are really beyond your control (you need to work to make a living) then your children will benefit if you convey confidence about the situation and refrain from overindulging them out of inappropriate and unhelpful guilt.