There is a moment (or several moments) in every parent’s life they wish they could take back. It could be as simple as the first time you ever raised your voice and caused your child to cry, the thoughtless thing you said that hurt their feelings, or the preventable accident that resulted in a trip to the emergency room. But after the tears dry and the wounds heal, there is a feeling that can linger on in the hearts and minds of parents and caregivers, and that feeling is: guilt.
Despite knowing that everyone makes mistakes, it can be hard for some parents to shake that nagging feeling that they’ve fallen short of perfection in the eyes of their children. It’s important, though, for well-meaning parents to move past their feelings of remorse and learn to absolve themselves for past slip-ups. Here are some ways parents can begin to forgive themselves for their mistakes—not only for their own health, but for the sake of their kids, too.
Worry less about the future
Everyone gets mad at their kids at some time or another. But as Dr. Laura Markham writes for Psychology Today, it’s the fear of how our kids will “turn out” that can cause parents to act irrationally in the moment:
(What if he NEVER learns? What if she gets in big trouble and ruins her life? What if I’ve damaged him forever?) But fear never helps us make good decisions. You can always choose a new course now and start moving in a better direction. And the truth is, most issues with kids are developmental, meaning that as the brain matures, the child matures. So lighten up, give yourself some compassion, and trust that your child will be ok. Just say to yourself, “He’s getting better parenting than I did, and I came out ok.”
If parents let that anxiety guide them in raising or disciplining their children, no one will learn anything from their mistakes. Kids’ brains are still developing and maturing, so they’re going to have a meltdown or two (or a thousand) until they know how to get a grip on their emotions. And you’re human, too, so give yourself some grace if things get heated. Believe that everything will be alright—because it will—and don’t let your concerns about the future affect your present.
If parents are unable to forgive themselves for their mistakes, how will their children learn? As clinical psychologist Emily Edlynn writes for the Washington Post, family struggles and their resolutions are necessary for a child’s development. She describes a concept known in the study of family interactions as “rupture and repair,” which describes how “a regrettable moment can become an opportunity to model positive conflict-resolution behaviors while also maintaining closeness.”
But when parents feel guilty about strains in the relationship, they can remain in the “rupture” stage and don’t resolve anything. Edlynn explains:
If we can admit to our child that we were frustrated and that we feel badly about yelling, this allows for the diffusion of the negative emotion—and for the all-important hug to close out the interaction with warmth.
It’s good to explain to our children why we’re upset with them. But if we absolve them and ourselves for how we feel, we can teach forgiveness firsthand.
Don’t take things personally
Before they go to their room in a fit of rage, kids are going to say things from a place of anger that will break a parent’s heart—and cause guilty feelings: “You are so mean!” “I hate you!” “I wish I was never born!”
It’s hard to hear such cruelty from someone you love and not take it personally. But it’s important to keep in mind that children don’t truly mean those cutting statements, and their anger won’t last forever. It’s tempting to let children stew on their beds until they calm down, but Markham recommends gathering your patience and talking with your kids about why they’re so angry. Let go of your emotional defenses, and listen to what they have to say. This isn’t the time to give them advice or a lecture. Instead, focus on connecting with your child, and chances are, both of you will forget all the terrible words spoken.
Regulate your own emotions
If you catch yourself revisiting the behavior that caused you to feel guilty in the first place, hit the reset button on the situation by taking a deep breath and trying again. Not only will you be able to get back on track, but it’ll also serve as an example to your child on how to self-regulate their emotions.
As the Child Mind Institute points out, when parents work too hard to relax children after a meltdown, it can become challenging for kids to discipline themselves later in life:
“In those situations, the child is basically looking to the parents to be external self-regulators,” Dr. [Matthew] Rouse says. “If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and a child is able to ‘outsource’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop as a habit.”
When parents forgive themselves for their past mistakes, they can grow to become more confident caregivers and pass these valuable traits onto their children. So give yourself some grace, regulate your reactions, and learn to let go.