Q. We were eating in a restaurant when my 16-year-old son blurted out “You’re bad parents!” This presumably because we took away his cell phone during the meal. He said he was expecting an important text from his girlfriend. He and his sister left and started walking home. Sometimes I think my kids are out of control, and I blame myself. We scream and cuss. But we’re worn out from working our jobs. Are we bad parents?
A. The emotion of guilt is common among parents and is a normal part of parenting. I hear parents list so many reasons: not being with the children enough, not listening, being a bad role model, pushing too hard or not hard enough, cussing and yelling, not being loving enough, being too critical, not being consistent, drinking, spanking, divorcing, being depressed or having a physical or mental illness, fighting with a spouse, saying hurtful things, being selfish or not protecting the children. For some, guilt could be a sign of feeling they’ve fallen short in their goal to raise their children to be happy, successful adults.
As parents, we don’t have to be perfect, but we do need to be “good enough,” which means doing better within our own situations. I suspect you and your husband already know some ways you can improve, beginning with demonstrating respect for each other and for the children. Before you arrive home from work, get yourself relaxed with meditation, exercise or other acceptable ways. Speak kindly and respectfully, even if your children say or do something to upset you. Talk with your children about the need for everyone to be respectful. Emphasize other core values like truthfulness, responsibility and kindness.
And talk with your husband. Together, create household rules and come up with logical consequences for breaking them. Discuss all this in a family meeting and get input from the kids. Post the rules on the fridge or in a family notebook.
Then examine what’s making you feel guilty. Is it too little time with the kids? If so, schedule “dates” with each of them. Write it on your calendar. Even tired people can spend restful time with their children, like watching a movie and discussing it afterward. If you’re being too critical, give yourself a fine every time you catch yourself being critical and put the money in a jar. Use it later to treat the family.
Correct what you can and accept what you can’t. For example, if you have a physical or mental illness, you can’t give it up the way you can give up yelling. But you can seek professional help and follow medical advice to put yourself in the best possible state to parent your children. Take free or low-cost parenting classes. (Often, childcare is provided at these classes.) Build friendships with other parents and discuss parenting concerns with the group.
Are there bad parents? Yes, of course there are. Some of the adults I see in therapy describe parents who were abusive and/or neglectful. These adults are searching for a sign their parents are sorry for what they did or didn’t do. Unlike you, those parents tend to not feel guilty and usually don’t see or admit the emotional pain they may have caused their children.
Dr. Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.
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