Three Reasons Why You Feel Guilty About Your Parenting

If you feel like a bad parent, you're not alone.

As parents, it’s easy to worry that we’re not doing the best job. Other families seem to have such an easy time of it! We feel guilty or inadequate and wonder if we may actually be bad parents.

Most of us feel like we’re falling short in at least some areas of our parenting. Especially in the face of difficult behaviors, or even everyday misbehavior. It’s easy to start feeling like we’re failing at parenting.

But those feelings usually come from unrealistic beliefs about the way things ‘should’ be. We beat ourselves up about it and get stuck in unproductive patterns that we’re not always aware of.

These patterns turn us into reactive creatures. We respond to situations emotionally—often we’re unaware of the underlying feelings driving our responses. This isn’t productive. The problems vexing us continue or get worse, and we feel even more frustrated and wonder how we could be failing so miserably

I’m confident that you are not a bad parent! The fact that you are reading this shows that you care enough to work on being the best parent that you can be.

Luckily, there is a way to relieve feelings of inadequacy as a parent—and to improve the results you get from your parenting strategies. The key is in understanding where these guilty feelings come from, countering negative self-talk, and changing your habits and emotional responses.  

Are You Really a Bad Parent?

Let’s start by asking: why do you feel guilty about your parenting?

For a lot of the parents I work with, this comes down to two things: social comparisons and deep-seated, unconscious beliefs about the way things ‘should’ be. The problem with each of these patterns is that they are built on a foundation that doesn’t line up with reality.  

Reason #1 The Power of Social Comparison 

Research shows that social comparisons generally serve to make us feel worse about our own lives. In a world dominated by social media, this problem is only getting worse. 

Why? Because social comparisons give us a distorted view of reality. 

The problem with looking at other families to gauge what’s normal is that we don’t have much real insight into other people’s lives. It may feel like we have a window into their reality but we rarely catch more than a glimpse. 

Usually (especially with social media) we get carefully curated impressions. But the everyday reality is usually quite different. People only show us the parts of their lives they want us to see, not the whole picture.

When we see a mom at the grocery store with well-behaved kids, we tell ourselves a little story about her perfect world. But we make a lot of assumptions in that story. We don’t see the candy she may have bribed the kids with beforehand, or the tantrum the kids may throw in the parking lot, or how she struggles to get the kids to go to bed later that night. 

When we see our friends’ social media posts, don’t they always look like a perfect, happy family? But if we think about it, we know that these are merely the parts of their lives that they want to show to the world. Social media reflects the exceptional parts of people’s lives, not their day-to-day and moment-to-moment reality. Why would they post pictures of the conflicts and struggles that are a part of any family’s real life?

When we make comparisons to others it’s easy to feel like everyone else is doing great while we struggle. But the reality is that every family has its own issues. We just don’t always see them.

Reason #2 Unconscious Beliefs About How Things ‘Should’ Be

The ‘Natural Parent’ Myth

Being a parent is one of the most complicated and impactful things that most of us will ever do. And yet there is often an expectation that parenting is something that should come naturally. If we struggle with it, we feel like we’re failing at something we ‘should’ know how to do.

Most of us aren’t even aware that we hold this view. Sometimes it’s our most firmly rooted ideas about the world that contain the most unchallenged assumptions. 

One of the pitfalls of belief is that we tend to notice things that confirm our worldview, and unconsciously dismiss things that challenge it. It takes deliberate effort to avoid this trap. 

But once we identify unconscious beliefs we can begin to deconstruct them and question the underlying assumptions. Then we can start to adjust our thinking in more constructive ways.

Parenting as a Skill

Try to forget your assumptions for a moment. If you really think about it, you can see that this idea—that you should automatically know how to be a parent—is a totally unreasonable expectation. 

We may take classes, learn by example or through mentors, or even figure things out on our own through experimentation or trial and error. But we don’t think that the ability to do complex tasks is simply bestowed upon us at birth.

You would never think that you should simply know how to play the piano, build a house, or even read a book. You know that you need to learn how to do these things.

As humans, we don’t act on instinct alone. We know that to be good at something we need to learn how to do it. So why should we think any differently about something as difficult and complex as raising a child or having a family? 

Reason #3 Guilt and Feelings of Inadequacy

When we struggle with parenting issues, we feel like we are failing at something we ought to be able to do. What’s worse, when we look around at other families everyone else seems to be doing just fine!

We’re embarrassed by our perceived failure. When we fall short of our idealized (and unrealistic) image of a parent, we feel ashamed. 

The other side of social comparison is that we feel embarrassment particularly strongly when others see us struggling. That’s because we think that we ‘ought’ to be able to handle our kids. So when, say, our kids misbehave in public, we can feel intensely embarrassed. 

This creates an especially strong emotional response and we fall deeper into a pattern of reacting to our own emotions rather than to actual situations. 

Being An Imperfect Parent is Normal!

It’s extremely important to realize that everyone feels guilty or inadequate sometimes. We all question our parenting. Your challenges may feel unique, but all families experience difficulty at some point or another. Even though you may not see that part of other families’ lives, remind yourself that it’s true.

Despite appearances, no one you see is actually a perfect parent.

If you’re having trouble with your kids, or are wondering why parenting feels so hard, be reassured: having a hard time parenting does not mean you’re a bad parent! It’s unreasonable to think that you wouldn’t need help with something so complex and so important.

So how can you address these guilty feelings about our parenting? 

Start with your feelings about you as a parent. Next, read our blog about how to stop negative thoughts and improve your self-talk as a parent.

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