Mother guilt. We mothers are famous for it. Something goes wrong with one of our kids. Maybe a teen gets into drugs. Maybe a daughter gets pregnant much too young or a boy announces he’s going to be a father before he’s going to be a high school grad. Perhaps your kid is picked up for shoplifting or worse. Or a call from the local police tells you that your daughter has been stopped for driving under the influence. Maybe your genius son is dropping out of school or your gorgeous daughter came home with piercings in places too painful to mention.

Your feelings are multiple and intense. There’s shock. (OMG!) There’s anger, of course. (You did what?!) There’s blame. (How could you do this – to yourself? to me? to your father? to your family?) There’s worry, even fear. (Are you okay? Really?) There’s grief and tears. (I’m more sad than mad.) And somewhere in the mix is guilt. (What did I do? What didn’t I do? Wasn’t I a good enough parent? How could I have missed that something was going wrong?)

It’s the guilt that often gets to us the most. Guilt eats at us during quiet times, before bed at night, and when we get up in the morning. Guilt makes us less clear about what to do for and about the child. Guilt, even a little guilt, is a big burden to bear.

Guilt rarely happens in isolation. It is something that happens between people. A research team led by Roy Baumeister, PhD at Case Western Reserve University found that guilt strengthens social bonds and attachments (Psychological Bulletin, vol.115, No. 2). They found that the basis of guilt is actually the ability to feel others’ pain and the desire to maintain connection to the group. It’s refreshing to read that someone has discovered and named positive uses of a powerful emotion. Often enough, articles and self-help books about guilt term it a useless emotion, something to escape or avoid.

I’ve found that it can go both ways. There are definitely ways that we can use guilt to challenge ourselves and improve relationships. But there are also ways that we can use it to avoid responsibility, to control others, or to shift the feelings of shame and blame onto someone else. It’s our choice to make.

Positive Uses of Guilt

  1. Guilt is our conscience talking. Just because we don’t like feeling guilty doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to feel guilty about. Guilt is a signal to take a look at our part in our relationship with our child and whether or not we have done what we believe in our hearts is good enough parenting. Guilt is our internal alarm system that signals that maybe we’re not living up to our own expectations of ourselves.
  2. Guilt can make us pay better attention to what we are doing as parents. Guilt is a thinking emotion. Yes, we feel bad. But along with the feeling is usually some version of “I should have, could have, wish I had” that can be useful in its own way. It makes us consider whether we really should have or could have done something different and, if so, what we can do next to better the situation.
  3. Guilt can be a motivator to do something. Nobody likes to carry feelings of guilt around for long. It can be the push we need to make some changes in our lives so we come closer to being the parent we want to be.
  4. When not over-done, showing our guilt can be a way to make the child we’ve let down (however unintentionally) feel better and can help heal the relationship. When the teen sees us feeling guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed, the teen feels heard and sees that his or her feelings or needs are respected.

On the other hand, guilt can immobilize the individual and distance people from one another.

Negative Uses of Guilt

  1. Guilt can let us off the hook from making change. If we look like we feel bad enough, the person we’ve wronged ends up feeling sorry for us and doesn’t feel entitled to ask us to do something we really ought to be doing.
  2. Guilt can be a passive-aggressive way to assign blame. Some mothers are masters at using guilt to manipulate. Our children want and need our approval. Because feeling disconnected from a parent’s love is frightening, children do respond to the “guilt trip.” Young children will do almost anything to get back into Mom’s favor. Teens, however, respond to guilt with some combination of anger and their own guilt, causing the relationship to break down further.
  3. Guilt can be a way to punish ourselves. If we can’t change what has happened; if we can’t figure out how to make things right; if we see ourselves as having been a terrible mother, we can at least have the decency to beat ourselves up with guilt for a very, very long time. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t repair a troubled relationship with our child. Atonement is a poor second choice to reparations but sometimes it feels easier.
  4. Guilt can be a poor substitute for feelings of self-worth. When a mom doesn’t believe she can live up to her own standards, she can at least show that she’s a good person by feeling guilty about it. Real self-esteem requires working on actually achieving those standards, not sitting in good intentions.

It is inevitable in family life, and especially in family life in the teen years, that our kids will at times feel misunderstood, and that we moms will over- or underreact to choices they make. When people are engaged with each other, it’s impossible not to step on one another’s toes now and then. When teens are doing the hard work of separating from family and asserting their individuality but at the same trying to stay connected, they may say harsh things, make poor choices, or push limits and get themselves into trouble.

Negative guilt ultimately gets in the way of doing what needs to be done to maintain healthy relationships while at the same time holding ourselves and our kids to healthy standards. Used well, guilt helps us feel empathy, connect to our child, and get busy making needed changes.