The Guilty Parent Syndrome

By Dr Jan MacGregor Hepburn, article contributed from Families Magazine.

As a parent, do you feel constantly guilty? About what you’ve said/done or not said/done? If so, you’d be forgiven for thinking that guilt and parenting must be inextricably linked. And you would be right! BUT they don’t have to be.

There are three factors to consider, although they often get mixed up together.

Firstly, a child takes good parenting for granted. Children are meant to be self-interested. This is how they grow into adults who can take care of other people.

If you force your child to be grateful and think about you rather than themselves, you won’t get a nicely rounded and kind adult. You’ll get someone unhappy and driven by guilt, or someone very resentful. All the things you do right for your child should be taken for granted. They will just complain about the mistakes you’ve made. And this can make you feel guilty.

When your child is ungrateful for your good parenting, remember, they are meant to be like this, and you are meant to be angry and resentful sometimes. These bad thoughts can also make you feel guilty, even if you are always nothing but outwardly kind!

Finally, there is definitely a kind of ‘bad parent’ narrative in our society. Parents are blamed if their child has problems or misbehaves. You can see it in any shopping centre. A child has a tantrum, their parent is harassed beyond words and onlookers suck their teeth and disapprove. No-one offers any help, or even a sympathetic smile. These kinds of judgements can make you feel guilty.

So why should you not feel guilty?

  • There is no such thing as the perfect parent and when you make mistakes, your child is learning how to manage life by watching how you deal with them. They can’t develop personal security if they never have any problems or mistakes to work through.
  • No-one should feel guilty about thoughts and wishes. You can’t help how you feel, you can only help what you do.
  • People judge because of their own difficulties; it really does say more about them than you. They are the ones who should feel guilty, for being judgemental – but, of course, they don’t. They are making you feel it instead!

A Parent’s Place is in the …Wrong

This quote has been used to describe how parents’ ideas about childbirth and bringing up children are often disregarded. However, it can also reflect how parents feel within themselves when faced with the challenges of bringing up a child. And if you feel you are in the wrong, you feel guilty. But you are not usually in the wrong. Everyone makes mistakes.

What is important in life is to make mistakes and then put them right. Seeing you do this is how children learn to be independent grown-ups who can manage themselves. They take in how you think about anything that’s gone wrong and how you correct it. So don’t be afraid to apologise when you have made a mistake. Seeing you do this is really good learning for children [as well as for adults sometimes!].

So, best thing to do – give up guilt altogether!

Guilt is a Waste of Emotion

There really is no point in feeling guilty. If you have done something wrong, you have to try and put it right. There’s nothing else you can actually do and this can be quite a frightening thought.

However determined we are not to do something wrong or that others should not do something wrong, we can’t use the threat of guilt to ‘guilt-trip’ ourselves or other people. Sometimes this happens because we imagine that if we or someone else doesn’t feel guilty, then we/they might feel free to behave badly.

Most of the time, guilt-tripping doesn’t actually work. You can make yourself or somebody else feel guilty after whatever has been done ‘wrong,’ but even feeling guilty afterwards doesn’t necessarily stop whatever has been done ‘wrong’ happening again. That’s because we aren’t robots, so we often don’t think out what we are about to do or say (thank goodness).

Dr Jan McGregor Hepburn is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and part of the team at Her new book, Shame & Guilt, is published by nscience Publishing. For more info, visit

This article was first featured in Families Magazine.

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