Contributed by Austin Raines, LCMHCA

Parenting is an emotion-filled journey that can lead to incredible highs and challenging lows. Two complex emotions that are commonly experienced by parents are guilt and shame. These two emotions can have a great impact on parenting styles and the overall environment of your house. Understanding the difference between the two is essential for cultivating a healthy and nurturing environment for both us and our children. In this discussion, we’ll explore the distinction between guilt and shame and how the two impact your ability to parent most effectively.

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they are very distinct emotions with different effects on your ability to parent. To begin this conversation, it is important to recognize that not all guilt is unhealthy. Guilt is an emotion that humans need to avoid acting against their personal values. Without some level of guilt, we would have no internal way of recognizing the difference between right and wrong. Without a healthy level of guilt, we would ultimately lose the ability to tap into the desire to care for others. However, healthy guilt can quickly turn into unhealthy guilt without a proper understanding of how guilt functions. Unhealthy guilt is strong discomfort due to being unable to unrealistically high standards that have been constructed by ourselves or external forces, and it negatively impacts our perceptions of ourselves and our relationships with others.

Healthy Guilt:

  • Occurs when we recognize that our actions or decisions have caused harm or could potentially harm others.
  • Promotes accountability and responsibility.
  • Encourages us to make amends, learn from our mistakes, and grow as parents.

Unhealthy Guilt:

  • Arises from irrational or exaggerated feelings of wrongdoing when no harm has been done.
  • Leads to self-criticism and a negative self-image.
  • Hinders our ability to parent effectively and positively.

The more comfortable we get with accepting our unhealthy guilt, we begin to believe that those wrongdoings define us as an individual, which can lead to shame. Shame is a deep rooted belief that we are fundamentally flawed, and because of these flaws, we are unworthy of love and belonging. When shame takes over, we begin to tell ourselves that we are defective and are unable to do our job as a parent. Shame can stem from many places, but it often comes from external influences, societal expectations, and unrealistic comparisons of other parents.

When parents are plagued by shame, they often resort to fear-based parenting. Operating from a fear-based approach is driven by the need to control and avoid judgment or rejection from others. Operating out of fear, parents often make decisions and react to their children based on their own anxieties and concerns rather than considering what is genuinely in the child’s best interest. Some common fear-based parenting characteristics are listed below:

  • Perfectionism: Parents striving for an unattainable standard of perfection, fearing that any mistake will be a reflection of their inadequacy and inability to parent.
  • Overprotectiveness: Overcompensating for perceived shortcomings by becoming overbearing or excessively controlling, which can hold back a child’s ability to develop properly and become independent.
  • Comparison: Constantly comparing oneself to other parents, leads to feelings of inadequacy or superiority. Neither of which fosters healthy relationships with other parents or your children.
  • Harsh Discipline: Resorting to punitive measures out of frustration or guilt, rather than using constructive discipline methods that prioritize learning and growth.

Discussing these parenting styles can be very challenging! It is so easy to pick apart your own parenting style and begin to talk negatively about your ability to parent. This discussion would be counterintuitive if I left parents questioning their abilities to parent effectively. Being a parent is the hardest job in the world and no parent can do everything right, it’s just not possible! In order to step away from fear-based parenting and turn to a healthier approach of parenting, we can use vulnerability, courage, and most importantly, self-compassion in parenting. Here’s how those tools can be helpful in parenting:

  • Practice Self-Acceptance: Recognize that you are not perfect, and that’s okay. Work towards embracing your imperfections and view them as opportunities for growth.
  • Cultivate Empathy: Extend the same empathy you offer to your children to yourself. Understand that making mistakes is a part of the human experience. If you find yourself running out of empathy, go back to self-compassion. The more compassion you show yourself, the easier it will be to show compassion to others, including your kids.
  • Set Realistic Expectations: Understand that perfection is unattainable and should never be the goal. Set achievable goals and celebrate your successes, no matter how small.
  • Look for Support: Connect with other parents who can empathize with your struggles. Sharing experiences and challenges can help you realize that you’re not alone.
  • Model Vulnerability: Be open about your own challenges as a parent with your children and with others. No parent has everything figured out, and that’s ok! Being open about your struggles fosters an environment of honesty and teaches your kids and other parents that it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes.

Understanding the difference between healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, and shame is pivotal on your parenting journey. Guilt, when managed healthily, can help us grow and make amends, but when it turns into unhealthy guilt, it can hold us back from being the best parent we can be. We’ve discussed how shame drives parents to operate out of fear, anxiety, and comparison of other parents. Embracing self-compassion offers a way forward, which can be done through self-acceptance, empathy, and vulnerability. Through self-compassion, we can create and nurture healthier relationships with both ourselves and our children, as well as foster an environment of growth, understanding, and connection. Remember, you are not alone on this journey, and self-compassion is the key to growth and connection in the world of parenting.