GUILTY PARENTS

by drnieman on February 5, 2019

in Uncategorized

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When Dr. Benjamin Spock published his seminal book, “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care” in the middle of the 20 th Century, he may have been motivated by parents who asked similar, recurring questions. At the time there were far less cooks in the How-To-Parent-Wisely kitchen.

Spock became internationally renowned for his down-to-earth wisdom and insightful quotes such as:

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.

—There are only two things a child will share willingly: communicable diseases and the mother’s age.

—The child supplies the power, but the parents have to do the steering.

If Spock’s book were to be written today it would probably fail against the competition of podcasts, Ted Talks, Facebook parental support pages, professional bloggers on parenting and national pediatric organizations with influential peer-reviewed position statements on key topics of the day.

Many would claim that a pediatrician’s most important task is to help parents raise a physically and mentally healthy child. But that is only partially true. More and more over the past three decades I am observing a silent epidemic—parental guilt.

It is becoming all too common to hear moms say things like: “It’s all my fault” or “Sometimes I feel like wearing a sign on my forehead saying “Blame me for the way my child turned out.”

The list that adds to parental guilt is endless, but commonly include the following beating-oneself-up practices:

—I should have listened better

—I was too focused on my work

—I pushed too hard

—I should not have pushed so hard

—I was too inconsistent

—I was not there enough

—I was too critical

—our divorce caused all this trouble

Navigating one of the hardest chapters of parenting—adolescence—is particularly known for creating guilt. A Psychology Today blogger and the author of “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” is Dr. Carl E Pickhardt PhD.

This parenting guru joins many of his peers in reminding parents to focus on the process rather than the outcome. That is of course easier said than done—especially for parents who tend to be perfectionists.

The research on self-compassion is exploding these days, given the surging popularity of mindfulness and secular Buddhist psychology.

An academic paper in the Journal of Psychology published online on Oct 30, 2018 looked at the role of self-compassion in terms of improving parental well-being.

The authors were prompted to study this subject because currently there is little research examining whether self-compassion might reduce parental guilt and shame. The study concluded that there is ample evidence that self-compassion training can alleviate parental guilt. (For more information, search “Self-compassion Improves Parental Well-being in response to Challenging Parenting Events by Fuschia M Sirois, Susan Bogels and Lisa Marie Emerson)

When it relates to what we can control and what we cannot control, the wisdom of Shantideva, a Buddhist master, is captured in these words: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy about something that cannot be remedied” or “It is not possible to control all external events. But if I simply control my mind what need is there to control other things?”

The point is that parents who were given an assignment of caring for a child with depression, anxiety, ADHD or some other mental health or developmental challenge did not choose that assignment. They cannot control all that child decides to do—or not do. A parent can only do the best with what they knew at the time and hindsight indeed is 20/20.

The problem for some is that guilt can be false or true and it takes a lot of inner work to sort out the difference between the two types of guilt.

My coaching mentor Alan Cohen used to say that Jews invented guilt and Catholics perfected it. At first I thought it was a humorous saying, until I discovered that there are deep academic papers who explored the various sources of guilt from a cultural and psychological perspective.

In the end, self-compassion is what I tend to share with parents who tell me about the guilt they feel as parents. I have discovered an academic from the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Kristin Neff, via a mindfulness podcast.

Dr. Neff’s book “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength and Thrive” is a very useful resource for any parent who is struggling to deal with guilt. She is considered one of North America’s most eminent experts in the field of self-compassion and resilience.

For those who enjoy listening to podcasts while they are on the go, rather than sitting down and reading a book, I have found this podcast with Drs. Hanson and Neff very helpful: www.rickhanson.net/the-power-of-self-compassion/

DR. NIEMAN HAS WORKED AS A PEDIATRICIAN SINCE 1987. HE IS AN AUTHOR, SPEAKER AND ENDURANCE ATHLETE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, SEE WWW.DRNIEMAN.COM

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