Guilt haunts so many parents! Many of us accept it without question. It clouds our view like an overcast sky. It feels so normal that we may not even recognize it. Guilt makes us vulnerable to verbal abuse. When our kids say something outrageous, we feel no outrage. We secretly believe that somehow it’s our fault. After all, we must have done something wrong or they wouldn’t act like that. We see our kids through a fog of self-blame.
Some parents dig a bit deeper. They try to pinpoint exactly what they did wrong. They try to trace their kids’ mistakes directly back to their own mistakes. And whenever they recall those mistakes, they feel terrible. They can’t forgive themselves. They are so engulfed by shame that they forget to correct their kids’ behavior. They hold themselves, not their kids, responsible. They may even feel that their kids have the right to punish them!
Do either of these patterns sound familiar? If so, I’m so glad that you’re reading this blog post! I think I can help you lift this cloud of guilt. Are you game?
Wonderful! As soon as you can find some time and a quiet place, grab a pen and several sheets of paper. We’re going to do an exercise that I call “Guiltbusting.” You don’t have to complete it all in one sitting. In fact, the more time and thought you give it, the better. To that end, I’ll present only the first section of this exercise today. I’ll continue it in later posts. That gives you some time to ponder the questions in each session.
The purpose of this exercise is to convert guilt to action.
Step A: Warm-up
We’ll begin with a warm-up exercise. It may sensitize you to the guilt in your own thought process.
Please close your eyes. Search your memory for the last time your teenager verbally abused you. Try to recall your thoughts at the time. If you can’t remember, then take note of the thoughts you are having now as you recall the incident. Ask yourself these questions:
What stands out in my mind about that incident?
Of all the things my teenager said to me, which words hurt the most?
Of all the thoughts I had, which thoughts hurt the most?
Now open your eyes and write down the answers. If you like to doodle, you might even draw a stick figure of yourself surrounded by thought balloons. Study your answers or thought balloons. Do you see a theme?
If you were a stranger looking at information, how would you answer these questions?
This parent fears that _____________________.
This parent wishes that _________________.
Write down any insights that you had from this exercise. If you didn’t have one, don’t worry. It may come later.
Step B: Pick 5
If you know that you feel bad about something you did as a parent, write it down on a sheet of paper. If there are many things, pick the “worst 5” of your most regrettable parenting errors. Briefly describe each error on a separate sheet. We’ll refer to these as “Error Sheets.” If there are many regrettable incidents, you can just group them. For example, “I lost my temper too often.”
Step C. Advise Mr. Doh
Now you will tap into your own wisdom, your own values, and your own conscience as you advise your fellow parent, Mr. Doh.
Several years ago, Mr. Doh made a parenting mistake that he deeply regrets. He would like some advice on how to improve his parenting now. Let’s give him some! Think hard about the advice you give to him. Would you give yourself the same advice? After these questions, I’ll suggest the advice that I would give to Mr. Doh — and to you. Let’s see if we agree.
Before each suggestion below, write “DO” or “DON’T.” Then add any other suggestions that you have.
1 ____ Be honest with yourself. Accept responsibility for the mistake.
2 ____ Distance yourself from others because you made a mistake.
3 ____ Decide that your teen’s problems now were all caused by that mistake.
4 ____ Decide that it is too late to repair the relationship.
5 ____ Try to understand why you made the decision that you regret now.
6 ____ Forgive yourself for making that mistake.
7 ____ Decide that your kids won’t love you because of your mistake.
8 ____ Think about how much you’ve changed since you made that mistake.
9 ____ If possible, do something to make amends.
10 ____ Learn from the mistake. Write it down so you’ll remember. it.
11 ____ Think of things that you did right as a parent. Make a list and refer to it often.
12 ____ Take measures to keep yourself from repeating the mistake.
13 ____ Hate yourself for making the mistake.
14 ____ Live in fear that you might make the mistake again.
15 ____ Give yourself credit for trying back then — and for trying now.
16 ____ Remember that kids don’t come with instruction booklets.
17 ____ Reach out to other parents for support and perspective.
18 ____ Shower your kids with luxuries. Since you made a mistake,they’re entitled.
19 ____ Discuss your mistake with your kids when they are mature old enough to
benefit from the discussion.
20 ____ Let your kids ignore or defy your rules because you “deserve it.”
My suggestions for Mr. Doh would be only 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 19. In my opinion, the other advice is simply destructive.
In my next post, we’ll continue this exercise. In the meantime, please keep your Error Sheets handy. You’ll use them again. Also please think of any other “do’s” and “don’t’s” you might suggest to Mr. Doh. Add them to the list. Over the next couple of days, please continue to think about your answers to all of the questions above.
Hang in there with this exercise. It’s more difficult (and more powerful) than it seems . . .
Wishing you helpful insights,