Parent guilt. It hurts. We have all felt it. I have always tried to do the best for my children. Always. When I discovered a different approach to parenting, one that I felt so much more aligned to and gave me much more joy with my children, it felt amazing and also painful. I felt grief for all the moments I could have done differently; panic for the potential “damage” I may have done in moments I chose something I now know isn’t ideal for a developing brain, or indeed for not treating my child as an equal and valid human being.
I felt angry that no one told me the right things at the start, and shame for not having looked harder myself. I could go on and on about the difficult feelings that have risen over the years and I could comfort you by saying that it is all ok and no damage is done. I’d be lying.
You cannot take it back and your feelings, all of them – the joy, the grief, the pain, the regret and shame – they are all valid. You need to feel them to change and to do better. Because as parents we are always trying to do better even if in any given moment we do not succeed. So what comfort can I give, if it is not to tell you not to worry? Listen up…
My parents have damaged me
My parents are loving, compassionate people who did their best. They had tough upbringings too and a lot of stuff to contend with, just like everyone else. They did everything they could manage with what they had capacity for and the knowledge and skills they were given. I love them both hugely and they support me unconditionally. Does that mean that I am not damaged by their parenting of me? NO. (sorry guys)
I am not going into all the hows, whats and whys here. Suffice to say that they didn’t know that the way they were brought up wasn’t so ideal actually. They didn’t know about ADHD or neurodiversity, or that I was suffering as much as I was. They didn’t see it because the information wasn’t there and they had their own stuff happening – big stuff. And with the best of intentions to encourage me to do better, to be the best they thought I could be, they became the critical voice inside my head. This voice became debilitating. Do I say this to hurt them? Not at all. I know they are both in pain with the knowledge they have now, for not knowing before. They feel the sense of responsibility and I write this partly for them as well as you.
I have damaged my children
I have not hit them, neglected them, or abused them in any way, ever. But does that mean I have done no harm? NO.
I am a loving and compassionate parent who has always done what I thought was best – but I had my own stuff, my husband too, and his parents too…. and on and on. However, I did not have the knowledge at the start that I have now. Knowledge about normal infant behaviour and needs, knowledge about how breastfeeding works and where to get the right support, about how cooperation, learning and discipline really works – and most recently, about neurodiversity. I am sure in a few years I will know a lot more again and wish I had known that too.
My eldest two of four particularly have borne the brunt of my lack of knowledge and understanding and I feel it.
Everyone fucks up their kids, right? So it’s ok?
NOPE. I am not going to let myself off the hook that easily and if you really want to do the best by your children, you won’t either. Yes we all damage our children. It is unavoidable. But that doesn’t make it ok for us to just ignore it. When we hurt someone, we need to take responsibility. Those guilty feelings are there for a reason. They tell us we need to change something. So feel it and then make amends. Take action to restore the balance and your connection with your child. There are two people’s feelings in this relationship and you need to deal with both.
Listen and learn
First, when the time is right, talk to your child about all of these experiences – but not from a place of defensiveness. From a place of opening the space for listening. Let them know that you know you didn’t do it all right and that you want to discuss it and listen to their feelings about it. Really listen. They need to feel heard to heal, even from things you may have considered to be minor.
Our children have a right to their feelings, which you may not see now but may do later. If our words and our actions have hurt them, they have a right to feel heard and be angry that we didn’t do better. We, as parents, must take responsibility for our actions in the past, regardless of the intentions we had behind them.
Think of how your parents hurt you (whether in big or small ways) and imagine how healing it would feel to have your feelings about it validated, heard and cared for.
Finally, I beg you to forgive yourself for not knowing then what you know now.
Go through the process, do the work and truly let it go with the knowledge you have owned it. These were your actions that you are responsible for but YOU DIDN’T KNOW BETTER. Not knowing is not your fault. I am not trying to let you off the hook for things you have done that may (probably will) have an impact on your child. I am trying to tell you that the only way you can both heal is to own it and then forgive it. We must be as kind, caring and gentle with ourselves as we want to be with our children.
You cannot parent a child calmly, and as well as you want to, whilst you hold onto this stuff. Children learn through what they see. Watching you take responsibility and watching you forgive yourself will teach them to do that too and what more could we ever want for our children than to be that awesome. Humans who don’t just say sorry when they have wronged someone but actually listen, take ownership, make real amends and then are able to let it go, these are the humans we need in the future.
Forgive yourself. You deserve that. Your child deserves that.
Emily Fackrell : A CalmFamily director
Emily is a neurodivergent mum of four, with a passion for human rights, equality and learning. If you want to see more from them please follow CalmFamily on all types of Social Media and their own Facebook page “Emily Fackrell – Raising a generation“.