Children’s struggles or failures — real, perceived or anticipated — can activate strong reactions of disappointment, shame and guilt in parents. Typically, this is most relevant in families with high-achieving parents whose children are inherently less driven and have dissimilar personalities.
Guilt and Unproductive Parenting Patterns
Parents’ unconscious attempts to manage these feelings can manifest in a pattern of overindulgence and inability to set limits alternating with criticism, pressure, and rigid expectations. This pattern leads to negative spirals between parents and kids, compounding children’s problems and fueling self-fulfilling prophecies.
Veronica, 22, had been a difficult child from early on, and was a disappointment to her mom, Sarah. Being disappointed made Sarah feel guilty and self-doubting. Veronica’s personality was very different from hers and Sarah found it hard to accept. She was uncomfortable with her daughter’s intense emotions, willfulness and seeming lack of interest in achievement. Sarah had always been disciplined, compliant, and successful, and tried to make Veronica into this type of child.
Guilt Leading to Being too Harsh and too Lenient
Sarah felt responsible for Veronica’s struggles, and forecast doom for her future. She alternated between being critical and disapproving when blaming Veronica, and overly sympathetic and lenient when blaming herself.
Sarah gave Veronica consequences when she didn’t get good grades. But, apart from rules around homework and academic performance, Veronica rarely was held to any standard of behavior and had few if any responsibilities or limits. Veronica had unstable peer relationships in which she expected too much or too little, modeled after her mom’s dynamic with her.
Though she acted angry and indifferent toward her mom, Veronica was desperate for her respect and approval, and never felt good enough. During visits home from college, it was not unusual for Veronica to make plans with her mom, for example to go to a movie, and then at the last minute, make plans with a friend instead. Sarah felt hurt and mad, but never said anything out of fear that Veronica would be angry and not want to make plans with her again, and also out of feeling relieved that Veronica had a friend.
Effects of Parental Insecurity and Failure to Set Limits
Sarah’s insecurity and fear made her cautious and overprotective with her daughter, giving Veronica power over her mom and reinforcing a lack of faith in herself. This dynamic also set the stage for Veronica’s angry and inconsiderate behavior with her mom. Without being held accountable for her behavior, or given limits and responsibilities, Veronica missed out on opportunities to feel better about herself and be more successful in relationships.
When parents feel guilty or excessively bad for children, it’s harder to set limits, be truthful and direct, and challenge kids within their zone of capability. This inhibits opportunities for children to develop self-control, confidence and realistic expectations of themselves and others, perpetuating the cycle of underachievement.