Parental Guilt: How to Cope

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By Wesley Gallagher

Summer is over, and that means back to school. It’s an exciting time of new school supplies, haircuts, and Instagram feeds full of perfectly posed children holding chalkboards announcing the new grade they’re entering.

It’s also a time for the age-old tradition of comparing ourselves as parents — to our own parents, parents at our kids’ schools, and that utterly unattainable parental ideal we are constantly bombarded with on social media. How did she get her daughter to put that adorable bow in her hair? Why is her chalkboard so much cuter than mine? What’s his trick for getting his kids to school earlyevery morning?

We want so much for our kids, but all those expectations and all that comparing can add up to a whole lot of parental guilt. The “shoulds” keep adding up — I should volunteer to be the room parent, my child should have a new everything for the start of the year — and the guilt moves in like coastal fog.

Parental Guilt in the Digital Age

Parental guilt is as old as the hills, but there’s something about today’s expectations on parents (on everyone, really) that feels different. We’re bombarded with information from all sides, which can be helpful when we need advice, but it can be downright crushing when we’re already overwhelmed just trying to do the best we can.

Social media is no help, showing us only the best 10 percent of the lives of all of our friends, making it look so easy for everyone else to do something that at times feels impossible for us. Those “shoulds” are no longer just voices in our heads — they are images all around us.

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Guilt, Anxiety, and Depression

Guilt actually has some benefits, believe it or not. As with so many emotions, there’s a good and bad side. According to Psych Central, the basis of guilt is the ability to feel other people’s pain and the desire to connect to others. Sometimes that guilt can be our consciences telling us we need to think about how we’re doing as a parent; it can motivate us to be better parents, or to apologize for a way we’ve failed our child.

But unnecessary, unhealthy, or unresolved guilt can have negative results like low self-esteem and strained relationships. It can even lead to emotional issues like depression and anxiety.

How to Combat Parental Guilt

It’s one thing to be able to recognize when guilt is unhealthy and unproductive, it’s another to know how to address it. Here are eight practical ways you can kick parental guilt to the curb.

1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Social media has its benefits. It’s fun to keep up with friends and family, and even to show off the occasional fun vacation or successful birthday party. But more often than not it’s a hotbed of comparison, especially in times of stress like the beginning of the school year.

Our advice? Stay away from social media, especially if you feel that familiar guilt creeping in. Check in with yourself after scrolling through your feed. If you feel worse than you did before you started, it’s time to take a break. There’s no use comparing your reality to the carefully culled picture social media presents of your friends’ lives. Put your phone down and live in reality.

2. Get to the root issues.

If you’re feeling guilty about something — spending less time with your kids, not joining the PTA, sending a less-than-Instaworthy lunch to school — stop and ask yourself where the guilt is coming from and if there’s something you can do about it. If there are practical steps you can take, like contacting your child’s teacher or setting up a healthier routine for your kids, doing so may help you feel more in control.

On the other hand, if your guilt seems out of proportion to the circumstances or you feel incapable of overcoming it, make sure it doesn’t come from an unhealthy expectation that has been placed on you from outside sources. Are you still trying to live up to that idea of perfection that your mom dangled in front of you as a child? If so, you might want to do some internal work to overcome unhealthy emotions tied to those unreasonable expectations and break free.

3. Give yourself a break — we all make mistakes.

You’re living in reality, not in the world of social media, and this means — gasp! — you will make mistakes. You will do things that you maybe should feel guilty about. And that’s okay. Name it, deal with the emotions and possible ramifications of it, and move on from it.

We all make mistakes, but dwelling on them too long does more harm than good. Give yourself a break and realize that you probably did the best you could with what you had in the moment. Hindsight is 20/20, which means that you can probably see some things now that you couldn’t see at the time. Guilt won’t change your past actions or help you work toward a better future, so let it go.

4. Own your successes, too.

Once you’ve stopped comparing yourself to others and accepted that you will never be perfect, you should have a much easier time owning your successes as a parent. You have good parental instincts, and it’s okay to be confident in your decision to follow them. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but in the end, if you’re doing your best as a parent, that’s what matters more than any social media competition for parent of the year.

5. Get your priorities in order.

Does your parental guilt stem from trying to do too much and not being able to manage your overloaded plate? If so, it might be time to check your priorities. Is it too much for your family to have an extracurricular activity every other night? Cut some out. Is getting a homemade dinner on the table every night stressing you out? Get takeout a couple nights a week.

Make sure the priorities you are living by are your priorities, not someone else’s (like your mom’s or those found on your social media feed). Take some time to think through what your family’s top priorities are and base your schedule off of those and those only. You’ll save yourself a lot of unnecessary guilt and comparison if you know what’s most important for you and set realistic expectations for your family.

6. Slow down.

Once you have your priorities in order, hopefully you’ll have freed up some time to slow down and relax every once in a while. Some breathing room in your schedule will give you time to evaluate things as they come, process emotions properly, and give yourself and your family some grace.

7. Help your children cope.

It’s not uncommon for parents to worry about their children as they go back to school, and that can lead to feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough to protect them. Kids are often anxious about new circumstances, and you never know what this year will hold for your child. But it’s healthy to realize that you can’t control what happens to your children while they are at school.

What you can do is help your children cope as problems arise. Prepare them for their new environment and talk to them about issues as they come. Instead of trying to shield them from anything hard or unpleasant, focus instead on giving them the tools they need to deal with adversity, and make your home is a safe place for them to process problems when they arise. This will help calm your children’s anxiety and hopefully yours, too.

8. Ask for help.

Finally, don’t forget to ask for help. No man (or woman) is an island, and parenting in community is much better than parenting on your own. If you or your child are overwhelmed, reach out — to your partner, your family, your friends, or a professional. There’s no shame in speaking up, and in fact, we bet you’ll be even stronger for it.