Dealing with Guilt
Guilt-ridden parents frequently bend boundaries and try to "buy" their children's love. Showering children with too many toys, failing to enforce reasonable bedtimes, and allowing older children too much freedom are all harmful manifestations of guilt, according to Dr. Rimm, who is also a clinical professor at Case School of Medicine. And a child's emotional health can be negatively affected by a mother's anxiety, according to Dr. Newman. "Children pick up on that," she says, "and their behavior will reflect your emotions. You're not doing them a favor by feeling guilty."
The tendency to spoil children out of guilt signals a failure to understand the true job of a parent, according to Elaine Gibson, a teacher, parenting columnist, and mother of a child with Attention Deficit Disorder. "The parent is the authority. That role is more important than anything else. A lot of parents want to be liked. But setting limits is what parenting is all about. You have to be willing to make your child unhappy sometimes."
When a child has emotional or physical problems, mothers often absorb even more remorse, blaming themselves or allowing others to blame them for all their child's shortcomings, according to Gibson, who conducts workshops to help teachers learn how to deal with difficult children. "Some parents believe they are dealing with a blank slate," she says, "and their guilt is so oppressive, it keeps them from getting the answers they need to help their child. I tell parents 'It's not your fault, kids come with problems.' It usually takes six months of therapy to convince mothers they didn't do anything wrong."
Earlier generations of mothers probably experienced less guilt than today's moms for several reasons, including having more children and being exposed to fewer conflicting views. "When a mom had six kids, the first two were just practice kids," Gibson jokes. "We don't have the support mechanisms we had in the past. And now there are five million books with parenting advice. Every one of the people who write a book has their own value system; you need to determine your own value system before you look at a book."
Motherhood is viewed as a contest by many modern women, Glasser adds, and "there's a feeling that the more you do the better. It's a mess. It's really important to find a balance." While most mothers occasionally experience guilt, they should seek professional help if it becomes pervasive and incapacitating, Glasser emphasizes.