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.
Parents Taking Things Personally
In this example, Sarah’s guilt and need to compensate manifested in being permissive and overly tolerant with Veronica. Other behavior in this category includes being overly congratulatory; being afraid to say no; doing things for children they can do themselves; and giving false reassurance or unsolicited help. The subtext here can be insulting and demoralizing to children, reinforcing a sense of themselves as fragile and incapable, as well as cultivating redemptive anger and entitlement.
Parents react personally when they need validation from kids who trigger their insecurity. Projecting ourselves onto children, we experience self-doubt and guilt vicariously, and imprint it onto children. Shame and fear of failure then is mirrored back and forth between parents and kids, creating a vicious cycle which contaminates motivation and achievement.
Overidentifying with children’s struggles often is confused with being empathic, but, instead of increasing connection, it actually causes us to lose sight of kids as we respond to our own agendas.
When preoccupied by depressive guilt or other consuming emotions, we lose perspective and need to make up for children’s struggles, or our mistakes, rather than recover and learn from them as we want our children to do.
How to Help Kids Reach Their Potential
When we disentangle ourselves from our children, and embrace their differences and strengths, we can see them more clearly and believe in them. Flexible and achievable goals, established in collaboration with children, builds resilience and confidence. Balancing developmentally appropriate support and challenge, with parents present and mindful, helps kids reach their true potential.
Reminders and Tips for Parents
- Ask more questions and say less when talking to your child
- Evaluate whether your goals and expectations match what your child wants and can achieve
- Find out what’s really important to your child and use this to inspire motivation
- Be curious about your child’s experience rather than trying to force your own ideas
- Recognize the difference in how it feels when you are reactive rather than present with your child
- Remember that personalized reactions are more intense and have a sense of urgency
- Pull back and settle yourself when you are caught in your own feelings
- Remind yourself and your child that grades do not predict future success and happiness, or have to define who they are
- Remind yourself and your child that there are many different paths to a good life
- Practice recognizing and letting go of regrets and mistakes with your kids
- Recognize that mistakes with kids can be repaired if you own up to them and learn from them
- Recognize that how you handle your mistakes sets an example for your child
- Recognize that how you handle your own and your child’s mistakes will either promote resilience and success or getting stuck.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.