If you are a parent, you know what it is to be tortured by guilt. Guilt that you are not doing enough for your child – not giving enough, not bonding enough, not spending enough time and/or money, not teaching enough, not …
In short, you’re beating yourself up because a little voice inside your head pipes up every now and then that you are NOT good enough as a parent.
Guilt is part of the human condition, and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to escape it. What we must try for, if we are to live in relative peace and sanity, is to manage the guilt.
It is a sadly familiar scenario. Your teenager has been acting strange for the past few weeks – he disappears for unaccounted chunks of time and is acting very cagey around you. When you begin to broach the issue, he either ignores you, or reassures you so unnaturally that you are beginning to seriously worry.
Is he smoking on the sly (and what’s he smoking, anyway? Or inhaling? Or injecting?)? Drinking? Has he joined a gang or cult? Is it a girl? Or a guy? Is he cooking up an illegal scheme to make money? As a dad, you know the kinds of trouble he could be getting himself into. And things are much worse today than they were when you were a teen.
You wind yourself up tighter and tighter till you are ready to burst. If you are lucky, you might find out before you explode. If not, you’ll find out after you explode. And what you find out is this: He was putting together a surprise for your 50th birthday party.
Mainly because he wants you to let him have the party to beat all parties when he turns 16 two months from now! (Sigh of relief! Everything’s okay – he’s behaving like a normal guy. He wants something in return for all the work he’s doing. :-))
The point is: whether you explode or not, you will be guilty that you didn’t trust him enough. You will reproach yourself for not believing enough in him.
And this guilt will spur you to uncharacteristic behavior. You might allow him to break major household rules in an extravagant fit of remorse. Or you might try to restrict his freedom to ensure you don’t have to go through such agonies of uncertainty (and guilt) again. Whichever way the pendulum swings, it will swing wide.
And it will confuse your child.
In a much younger child too, guilt can lead parents to behave in a bizarre manner. Such as reading out the riot act to your daughter at first, and on realizing that you have misread the situation, apologizing profusely and bribing her with treats to make her (and yourself!) feel better.
Guilt makes us behave abnormally – contrary to our beliefs, our values, our thinking, our convictions. And such behavior confuses our children. They wonder what happened to the parent they ‘know’ so well. What’s going on?
You don’t want to tell your child why you are behaving as you are. Because you are ashamed of what you thought or said or did, and you want to suppress the guilt.
Enough episodes of guilt will increase the distance between you and your child, replacing trust with suspicion (what is my mom/dad thinking to make her/him behave this way?), anxiety, and perhaps even fear. (Children are very imaginative!)
I think we have a golden opportunity right here, to get closer to our children, to forge deeper ties with them, and to help them become worthwhile adults.
Children feel guilty too. She may never show it, but when she threw that glass in a fit of rage and it smashed against your hand, cutting your finger, she felt guilty as hell. She felt bad about what she’d done. She felt bad she’d done it. She felt bad she’d done it to you. Even by mistake, but she’d done it. She would give anything to take it back, but that isn’t possible. And she holds in her guilt, and lives with it, stewing in it.
She suffers, and sets herself up as a ‘bad’ person in her own estimation. Yup! You got that right – we’re talking self-esteem.
If you could talk to her, and tell her that sometimes, you feel like a ‘bad’ person too, when you doubt someone’s intentions, words, or actions, it would be enormously reassuring for her. “My mom! My dad! They feel this way too! I guess I’m not so ‘bad’ after all!”
Don’t kid yourself that only a young child would think this way. However she behaves around you, however she talks to / about you, you are still the bedrock of your teenage daughter’s existence. Your “I’m my own man” teenager is still deeply influenced by you – you’d be shocked if you knew how much.
Go back to your own childhood. Revisit some long-nursed guilt.
How freeing it would have been if someone had sat you down and said, “I know you didn’t mean to cut my finger. I know you didn’t mean to break the glass. It’s okay. I’m fine. I know you feel awful about the whole thing, but I don’t think any the less of you for it. In fact, let me tell you something. I, too, feel terrible about something I did. I feel awful about how I behaved the other day – when I started yelling at you the moment I entered the house, because you said you hadn’t done your homework. And then you told me that you were sick, but didn’t call me at work because you knew I had an important meeting and you didn’t want to disturb me.
How I wish I hadn’t yelled at you! Even though I didn’t know you were sick. You were sick and alone and still you were so thoughtful about me. And I’m your mom, and you were sick, and I was so mean to you! I know I didn’t know you were sick. But still, I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I still feel bad about it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over feeling bad about it.
But I also know that you don’t blame me for it. I know I feel worse about it than you do. That’s guilt. We all have it, so it’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you less lovable. It doesn’t make you less worthwhile. You are still a wonderful, worthwhile person, and always will be, no matter how many mistakes you make.
So don’t worry that you threw the glass, that my finger is cut. Stuff happens, you know.”
How freeing it would have been if someone had sat you down and said this!
And just like that – a horrible, makes-you-cringe, gut-wrenching, heart-aching experience becomes a memory to cherish!