How to stop feeling like a rubbish parent!

Some parents feel that whatever they do it’s not quite good enough! They feel guilty for working and missing out on time with the kids. They feel bad about relaxing and doing their own thing. It’s like there’s always something they could be doing to be a better parent, but they never quite achieve it. If this sounds like you, read on.


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 them 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 larger society also has a bearing.

As a parent you are also guided by an internal ‘schema’, a set of beliefs about what good parenting is. If you don’t conform to this ideal, you may feel bad. One of the issues today’s parents face is that the current ideal of parenting is pretty impossible to attain.

So guilty feelings are normal, and if you never felt guilt at all, you would probably be a bit of a sociopath! You can never be free from it, but you shouldn’t be debilitated by it either. Problems arise when guilt paralyses you, or when you let it influence you without being aware of it. If you are aware of your feelings and understand what triggers them, you can decide what, if anything, you would like to change.

One of the issues today’s parents face is that the current ideal of parenting is pretty impossible to attain.

Working through the bad feelings

Emma feels bad about her children sitting in front of the TV for over an hour while she reads the paper. She reacts hurling the paper away, shouting at the kids to stop watching and then switching off the TV. The result? Tantrums or sulking because she switched it off right at the crucial moment.

If Emma had been aware of that nasty little feeling that she wasn’t being a great parent, she might have asked herself: ‘But why do you feel guilty?’ And the answer would probably be that her feelings were compounded of several attitudes all rolled into one:

  • 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.

Once aware of the attitudes that triggered her, Emma would be more able to examine them rationally. She might discover that, yes, she does think too much TV is a bad thing. But on the other hand, time out for her is important. And that while stimulating children is good, they also need to be able to entertain themselves.

Armed with this self-knowledge, she might feel more able to sit back, wait for the programme to end and then suggest 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.

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.

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.


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? A bored child is 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 may grow up to become a self-centred and demanding adult. Children need to learn to draw on their own sources of entertainment. 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 . . .

Kids need love and consistency more than they need toys. If your children are nagging you for stuff, it’s because they have discovered it works ­– time to set some boundaries. Think about what you are comfortable with buying, and explain to your child how he or she can earn it: star charts are a good idea for younger children. Older children can be offered extra pocket money for chores. This also encourages them to become discerning shoppers.

I feel guilty about working

Working parents are often tempted to spend money on treats for their children to compensate for a lack of family time. If you are feeling guilty about working, ask yourself:

  • Is there anything in my day-to-day arrangements I could change? My childcare arrangements for instance?
  • 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? Take a day’s holiday just to chill out with your child.
  • Is working a positive choice? You may be working to contribute to the essential family finances, or to provide pleasurable extras, such as family holidays or a car. Or you may be working because you love your job and it helps to keep you sane? Thinking about your reasons for working can help to stop those guilt feelings because in most cases it is to help to provide the whole family with an easier/better/ more fulfilling way of life.
  • Does my partner feel guilty about working? If not, ask yourself why you do.

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 you are remembering your childhood through rose-tinted glasses! Make a list of what’s important to you now, and talk to other parents about what you struggle with.

I really ought to be more green...

Rather than beat yourself up about what you don’t do, sit down and decide what you are willing to do. 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.

Try this!

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

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

* Understand that you are entitled to your own life as well.

* Trust that you are a ‘good enough’ parent.


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