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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1996 Issue #41 

What Does Guilt Do?
By Lon Woodbury 

(The following is a continuation to my essay in Issue #40, [June 1996] entitled “IS ANYONE LISTENING? An Epidemic of Parent Guilt?”. The point of that essay was we seem to have developed a culture that blames parents when children make poor decisions, influencing many parents to blame themselves when their children act less than perfect i.e. an epidemic of parent guilt.) 

Guilt is a self-imposed wound. It occurs when a person believes he/she has done something wrong, or believes that he/she is inadequate. It is a subtle feeling, that is debilitating and harmful to healthy living. It can result in feelings of inadequacy, and/or denial, and/or blaming someone or something else. 

I see all of these from time to time in the parents I try to help find a solution for their child with troubles. The tragedy is that even when parents have made mistakes in the past, when they allow guilt to influence them, they are more likely to make more mistakes in the future. The future mistakes often consist of not doing the proper intervention when their child needs someone to care enough to provide the experience that is needed. 

What exactly can guilt do to parents with children making bad decisions? For one thing, it can convince parents they are inadequate. “No” is difficult to say since they might be wrong. A statement I’ve heard all too often is something like “I don’t know, I’m just a parent.” 

Setting and keeping boundaries is almost impossible for a parent feeling guilty when a teen-ager sets his/her sights on proving something is unfair. A parent that feels inadequate is very susceptible to undermining their own attempts at controlling their family at the accusation of unfairness or being unreasonable. It can turn things on its head to the extreme situation that in a sense, the child is raising the parents. One result was stated well in DR SPOCK TALKS WITH MOTHERS: “No child can remain secure or happy when he senses submissiveness in his parents. When they act as though they’d done him wrong, it convinces him that they must have.” 

Denial can come out of parent guilt also. If a parent characterizes some behavior as just normal childhood, they can be satisfied there is no problem, thus nothing to feel guilty about. Denial on the part of one parent can create arguments between parents, and even contribute to divorce. All of this hurts the child by denying him/her the intervention/help they often are crying out for. 

Blame is another form of denial that guilt can foster. “The problem is his/her friends.” Or, “The teacher doesn’t like him/her.” This sense of guilt can get a parent into claiming the child is a victim, and into aggressively protecting him/her by punishing those perceived as responsible. If successful in blaming another, that is “proof” to the parent that he/she is not to blame for the problem the child is having. 

Another wrinkle of the blame form of denial is to see the child as “damaged goods”. If a child is ADHD, or any of the innumerable diagnoses available to therapists, then the parents feel off the hook. They have proof the child was born that way and needs modern scientific sophisticated techniques to cure him/her that can only be provided by highly trained professionals. To their mind, no one can expect a parent to be capable of solving that kind of problem. 

I’m not arguing that these are not valid and helpful diagnoses for some children. I’m arguing when a parent accepts guilt, it makes them too quick to accept a diagnosis that proves it’s not the parents fault that the child is making bad decisions. To paraphrase Voltaire, “If ADHD did not exist, then we would have to invent it.” I hear from all sides a message that parents are to blame. I hear it from public school boards who are convinced the limited attendance is because “Parents just don’t care.” I even hear it from some citizen activists working to reinstitute family values who claim families are falling apart because “parents are not doing their job.” 

I hear it from Congress and legislatures who pass youth and family programs on the basis that “parents need help.” I hear it from politicians who punctuate their proposals for expanding government programs with “for the children.” I hear it from professionals who insist you cannot be an effective parent unless you use their book/course/theory. I’m afraid too many parents got the message. 

The message they got is, your instincts are not good enough, your common sense is not good enough, and the slightest mistake can have devastating consequences that you will be held accountable for. In my view, parenting is an important responsibility, but we are taking it too seriously, and harshly judging parents through hind sight. Our society’s expectations and demands are unrealistic, to the extent we are creating guilt in average parents who are doing a good, though not perfect job. 

We must remember that the greatest resource children have is the commitment and love parents have for their children. Imperfect as they are, parents deserve better than what amounts to a national bludgeoning of parenthood that has been building for decades. 

Michael Meyerhoff, Executive Director of the Epicenter Inc., The Education for Parenthood Information Center in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts says it well. “For some reason, humans are incapable of regarding themselves as human once they become parents. Don’t be so hard on yourself.... If people were intended to be perfect parents, the Almighty would have endowed everyone with the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Samson, and the will of G. Gordon Liddy.”

Copyright © 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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