Skip to main content

Melting Away Parental Guilt

Sitting across from me on the sofa with her adolescent daughter, Lydia was tearful and a little overwhelmed. I had not planned to meet with them that day, but I had a cancellation and was able to fit them in. Lydia's daughter Sandy had been in treatment with me for the past few months for an eating disorder. Though she had made great strides, Sandy continued to struggle with stuffing her emotions down with food. Sandy was working out the trauma she had experienced as a victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Sometimes Sandy acted out, sometimes she numbed out. For her, going numb was easier than letting the pain of her experience live alert inside her.

The trouble of parental guilt

Just like so many of the mom's who bring their children in for treatment, Lydia was incredibly resilient and was determined to do right by her daughter. Watching your daughter deal with any illness is tough. For Lydia, this pain was compounded by the extreme guilt she felt that her daughter had been abused. As the words started tearfully flowing, Lydia said in a tone barely louder than a whisper "All I wanted was to protect my daughter, and I wasn't even able to do that." She felt like a failure at the one thing that mattered most to her.

I could see Sandy, who initially sat stoically, start to soften up, lean in and put her arm around her mother. Sandy, I asked, "Are you upset with your mom for the abuse? For not protecting you?" She replied without thought, hesitation or anger in her voice "Not at all. I am just angry that they (the family member) have made her feel this way." And it was easy to see the the truth of her words in the protective way that Sandy looked at her mom.

Guilt is a part of parenting

Guilt is a part of being a good parent. Period. It does not necessarily mean you have done something wrong. On the contrary, what I have found is that guilt tells me something great about my clients. In this situation, Lydia's sense of guilt tells me that she cares deeply for her daughter, that she has a strong protective instinct, that she dreams of good things and peaceful relationships for Sandy. It also tells me she takes her role as a mother seriously and holds herself as Sandy's mom to a very high standard. I encourage you to ask yourself the same question I asked about Lydia when you are experiencing guilt. 

What wonderful thing does the guilt say about me?

I often help people recognize guilt for what it is--a sign post. What does your sign post say about you? For Lydia, she was eaten up by guilt, paralyzed by it. But through therapy,  she was able to recognize something good about herself because of the guilt she felt. Her guilt meant that she loved her daughter, and that was a great thing. Once she recognized that it helped melt away some of the guilt so that she could continue doing the hard work of parenting a teenager.

Your situation may be different from Lydia's, but I can guarantee you that you experience guilt as a parent. Maybe you feel guilty about not spending enough time with your kids, or about being impatient and yelling, about being too protective or not protective enough, or about not being able to provide the things you would like for them. The list could be endless.

Melting away the guilt

You would not experience any of this guilt if you did not love your children and want good things for them. Now, if you can just show yourself the same compassion you show your kids when they are less than perfect, you too can work past the guilt. You can work at being the kind of parent you want to be.

I am constantly impressed, amazed and dumbfounded by the parents who bring in their teens to therapy. These are parents who invest in their kids, who share their vulnerabilities, who love them through tantrums, acting out, being lied to, and many other difficult experiences. As a parent, you may doubt yourself, but remember, you are a work in progress. And you are exactly the parent your child was meant to have.

As mother's day and then father's day approach, I feel thankful that there are parents like those who walk in my door who are trying day by day to love their children well. They are shaping the future one heart at a time. And their investment is not in vain.

No matter what their guilt tries to tell them. 

If you are struggling with pain or feeling stuck in your life, professional counseling can help. You can contact our Houston therapists by phone at 713 - 591 -3612, via email at nancy @ wilsoncounsleing. org or visit the Wilson Counseling website at  to find out more. Help is just a phone call away!


Popular posts from this blog

Letting go of broken relationships

One of my Houston clients brought in this picture of a naked woman embracing a skeleton. She told me it had moved her deeply and spoke to her in a way that words could not. For this client, it was a visual depiction of a relationship she was holding onto with a man who could never really give her what she needed. When he would call her, she experienced a rush of happiness. But when he ignored her for days or weeks, she was forlorn and hopeless. She questioned herself and wondered why she was not more attractive to him. She was sure that if she were prettier, or smarter, or better in some way, he would be more interested. And she hated herself for not being able to just move on despite knowing the relationship was broken and lifeless. 
Seeing all of this depicted in this image communicated directly to her heart what was really going on. She was holding onto a man who was emotionally dead, unable to give back or love, or share in any satisfying way. She felt disgusted at the thought. Th…

Worried about the Coronavirus? 5 Tips For Feeling Less Anxious

If you are tuned into the news, you are hearing about the coronavirus, repeatedly. And you may be starting to feel anxious about possible outbreaks. Your fear is understandable, but it may not be helpful. As with everything, you actually have a lot of control over how you feel. You just need the right tools to keep your anxiety in check.

So before you go into pandemic panic, there are a few things that will help. 
1. Get accurate information
First, get accurate information about the virus. Not everything you read is accurate. The CDC is always a reliable source for information. You can read about common myths and facts about the virus on their website. A friend of mine shared this post and I found it really put things in perspective for me. 
2. Turn off the news & social media
Second, spend less time watching the news and reading social media posts about the virus. The more time you spend pondering the virus, the more panicked you are likely to feel. It will keep your mind stuck …

Empathy is my superpower, but sometimes it feels like my kryptonite

People can begin to experience healing often after just a single encounter of empathy I would be a rotten therapist if I didn't have empathy. Empathy allows me to understand and feel the world of my clients. It gives me the ability to help clients feel seen, cared for, and feel normal. People can begin to experience healing often with just a single encounter of empathy.

If empathy is such a great thing, why does it sometimes feel so bad to be an empathetic person? When people suffer, empathy allows us to go into their world and hold some of their suffering. But there is a cost to that. If you really share in someone's pain, that means you may also feel that pain. You lighten their burden, but sometimes in the process, you take part of their burden on yourself.
As a therapist, I have generally been able to be empathetic and present for my clients without taking all of the pain home with me. I have had less success doing that in my personal relationships.
To lighten someone els…