All Parents Experience Guilt—Here's Your Greatest Tool Against It

Photo by MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy / Stocksy

Your child is having a meltdown in the store. You're tired, exhausted, and maybe stressed about work, so the way you handle the situation is…not ideal. Hours or even days later, you're plagued with guilt and shame about what happened, making it hard to forgive yourself—and increasingly detrimental to your overall well-being.

Because guilt and shame show up especially in relation to others, it's never more apparent than in the parent-child relationship. Especially in the age of social media, there's so much pressure about what the "perfect parent" looks like or behaves like. The guiltier you feel about not meeting those expectations, the more your stress and anxiety levels can rise. The more you compare yourself to an idealized internal standard or what you perceive are society's standards, the more you start to erode your confidence in your parenting abilities, which might spiral into isolation or more dysfunctional parenting.

So how do you deal with this quintessential—yet at times overwhelming—parental guilt and shame? The results of a new study published in the Journal of Psychology offer up one possible answer: Start up a self-compassion practice.

Researchers surveyed 167 parents with children younger than 12, asking them questions to gauge how generally self-compassionate they were as people. Then they asked the parents to recall and write about an event that made them feel guilty or ashamed about their parenting. This ranged from exhaustingly giving into a stubborn child's unhealthy food choices to bringing a child to day care when they were still sick to yelling or screaming at a child in public. Next, the parents were split into two groups. One group was asked to reread the event they wrote about and then respond to the event in writing with an emphasis on three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. The other group took part in a "facts-only" exercise: They reread about the event and then wrote objective facts about it like what day of the week it happened on and what the weather looked like. Finally, the researchers surveyed all the parents again to gauge their feelings of guilt and shame after the exercises.

Unsurprisingly, the group who engaged in the self-compassion exercise had a greater sense of well-being with lower feelings of guilt and shame by the end of the study. Moreover, parents who simply had higher self-compassion in general (without going through the prompted self-compassion exercise) also experienced less guilt after recalling their parenting snafu. That means self-compassion is not only a practice to engage in when you're feeling low but also a personal quality worth investing in for the long-term.

Self-compassion gives you an opportunity to respond to any perceived personal failures and shortcomings—especially in parenting—with a sense of kindness toward yourself, a reminder that we're all human, and a more mindful awareness of what you're truly feeling and thinking. Whether it's a long-term habit or simply a momentary response, the more that you can take a kind, accepting, and mindful stance toward yourself when confronted with what you perceive as a personal inadequacy or challenge, the more you can reframe how you're showing up as a parent in ways that prime you for greater well-being.

The good news is that self-compassion is a learnable habit that you can practice at any time and can look like anything from meditation to gratitude journals and more. Want a concrete exercise to get started? The next time you find yourself battling parent guilt and shame, try Dr. Jennifer Weinberg's simple guided mindfulness exercise for fostering kindness and self-compassion. She suggests trying these statements on for size:

  • "May I forgive myself."
  • "May I be strong."
  • "May I be compassionate to myself."
  • "May I learn from my experiences."
  • "May I accept myself as I am in this moment."
  • "May I be patient."
  • "May I give myself the kindness and compassion that I need."

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