Psychology

Don't travel the guilt trip

Guilt seems to go with the territory when you’re a parent. And there’s no more challenging time to keep it in check than the run-up to Christmas! So if you’re feeling bad about spending too much money/not enough, giving too much attention/not enough, being over/under hot on discipline – read on!

Published

The following quotes offer a clue to the many and varied ways that mums end up feeling guilty! Maybe you’ve never had any of these feelings, but most parents suffer from a sense of guilt about something.

‘I feel most guilty when I'm tired or down and shout at the children far too much.’

‘I’ve always felt guilty for encouraging my older child to be more grown up and independent when my new baby arrived.’

‘I wanted to be baby-centred for the first year or two, but my friends thought I should push for more ‘me time’. I probably shouldn’t have felt guilty about my choice, but I did!’

So, what’s your weak spot?

Guilt is what psychologists call a secondary or self-conscious emotion. We are born experiencing primary emotions such as fear, anger and happiness, but secondary emotions like pride, shame and guilt develop later. To experience these you need to be aware of what other people think of you, which is why they are called self-conscious emotions.

How strong these emotions are for you, and what prompts them, will depend on your upbringing and the attitudes of the social groups to which you belong. The biggest influence is your own family, but society at large also has a bearing. It’s well documented that British people tend to emphasise guilt and shame more strongly than pride.

As a parent you are also guided by an internalised ‘schema’. This is a set of beliefs about what good parenting is: if you aren’t conforming to this ideal you may feel guilty. One problem modern parents face is that the current ideal of parenting is pretty impossible to attain!

So guilt is a normal emotion, and indeed if you never felt guilt at all, you would probably be a bit of a sociopath. You can never be free from it, but what is important is that you are not debilitated by it, and that you are able to change your behaviour. The problem occurs when guilt paralyses you, or when you let it influence you without being aware of it.

To use guilt positively, you need to work out the attitude which has triggered your feelings, and then decide what, if anything, you would like to change.

GUILT IN ACTION

Mum Sarah feels guilty when her children sit in front of the TV for over an hour while she reads the paper.

Her immediate reaction is to hurl the paper away, start shouting at the kids and abruptly switch off the TV. The result? Tantrums or sulking, because she switched the film off right at the crucial moment.

What Sarah might do instead is to ask herself: ‘Why do you feel guilty?’ Probably a few factors are involved, all to do with Sarah’s pre-conceived attitudes:

  • TV is a bad thing for children.
  • Taking time out to read the paper is selfish.
  • Good parents stimulate their children with educationally improving games.

If Sarah were conscious of the attitudes which trigger her feelings of guilt, she could examine them rationally. She might find that the only negative belief which she truly owns is that too much TV is bad. When it comes to taking time out, she might actually believe that it’s good for her as well as the kids. And while stimulating her children is a positive thing, they also need to develop the ability to entertain themselves.

So next time, Sarah approaches the same scenario differently. She sits back, waits for the programme to end and then suggests another activity for the children to do, with or without her. She is no longer being driven by guilt. She regrets that they have watched TV for an hour, but this has prompted her into positive action.

It’s all too easy for parents to get trapped in a spiral of guilt because they’re ignoring the bigger picture. And feeling guilty is a habit that may take time to break. Whatever you do, don't feel guilty about feeling guilty! Instead focus on being a good example to your children, someone who makes positive choices and who takes responsibility for their actions.

If you are still finding that you are overwhelmed with guilt, you might consider booking some sessions of personal coaching where the focus is on goal setting and positive action, rather than on introspection and regret.

GUILT TRIP TIPS

Children are adept at pushing the guilt button – if you let them. Here we look at some common scenarios from a fresh perspective.

I don't play with my children enough

‘I’m bored’ – does that push your guilt button? Bored children are growing up thinking that other people have a duty to entertain them. No child should expect entertainment all the time or imagine that parents are solely there to provide it. Such a child is going to become a self-centred adult, not a likeable person. Children need to learn to draw on their own sources of entertainment.

Can you remember how much time your Mum really played with you? Never give so much of your time to your children that you come to resent it, otherwise you are going to feel like a doormat.

I really should buy them.....

Most British parents buy guilt presents for their children at one time or another. Yet kids need love and consistency more than they need toys. If your children are nagging you for stuff, it is because they have discovered it works, so it is time to set some boundaries.

Think about what you are willing to provide, and spell out what your kids need to do for you: star charts are a good idea for younger children. Older children can be offered extra pocket money for chores. This will also encourage them to become discerning shoppers.

I’m not as good a mother as my mum

It’s natural to worry, but trust your instincts. The world is different now and what you are remembering about your childhood is through the rose tinted glasses of memory! Write down what is important to you now, and talk to other parents about what you struggle with.

I really ought to be more green...

Do you feel guilty about being under-vigilant in sorting the rubbish into the right bins? Or about the ecological cost of disposable nappies?

Rather than beat yourself up about what you don’t do, sit down and decide what you are willing to. Be realistic, and only agree to half of what you could do, that way you will be successful and happy rather than pushing yourself too hard. Feel good about what you can do, not bad about what you can’t.

WORKING WOMEN GUILT

Working parents spend hundreds of pounds on treats for their children simply to compensate for a lack of family time due to working, according to research.

It doesn’t help that newspapers show celebrities who work and yet have children who are immaculately turned out. Remember they have a whole household of staff backing them up. Without this, combining working and parenting can be exhausting. To add insult to injury, most working women still spend about 53 hours a week doing household tasks.

If you are feeling guilty about working, ask yourself:

  • Is there anything in my day-to-day arrangements I could change? Could I, for instance, start work a little earlier one day a week so I am home to pick them up from nursery/school?
  • Why am I working? Write down a list of reasons, and when that guilty voice in your head takes over, take the list out and remind yourself.
  • Could I do with a break to reconsider? Take a day’s holiday just to chill out with your child. At the end of the day, get out your list and consider if you want to work less or stay as you are.
  • Am I working only for the money? If this is the only thing on your list, perhaps it is time to reflect. What could you do without, and would doing without these things make you more unhappy? Make working a positive choice.
  • Does my partner feel guilty about working? If not, ask yourself why you do.

GUILT-FREE PARENTS

* Set boundaries and don’t let their children walk all over them.

* Share childcare and ask for help when it’s needed.

* Know that they are entitled to their own life as well.

* Trust that they are ‘good enough’ parents.

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