Do You Struggle with Parent Guilt?

Parents should guide, protect, teach, discipline and nurture their kids the best that they can.

As a parent, you can't do everything perfectly. So what do you do with the guilt that comes after a parent fail?

“There’s a lot of guilt in being a mom.” 

A coworker said this to me while I was pregnant with our son last year. While I knew what she meant, I found myself thinking, “Does it have to be this way?” 

It’s true, the stakes are high—raising a child is a great responsibility, and parents should guide, protect, teach, discipline and nurture their kids the best that they can. But parents are sinful human beings, trying to bring up children in a sinful world. No one does it perfectly. Whether it’s working too much, blowing up in anger, or forgetting picture day, parents will fail their kids. They just have to choose what to do with the guilt that naturally comes when they do. 

What do parents feel so guilty about? There could be a million answers to that question, but these few top the list. 

1. Working too much. 

According to a Pew Research study, 48 percent of working dads feel they don’t spend enough time with their kids, and half of these dads don’t feel they are doing a good enough job as a parent. Whether or not this is reality or only their perception of it, the feeling is profound. 

2. Losing it. 

When parents lose control, they can frighten their kids and infuriate their teens. Anger is threatening, whether or not there is physical harm done. Parents know this isn’t an appropriate way to deal with emotions, and the regret afterward can be overwhelming.

3. Missing out. 

Parents sometimes miss out on games or performances, and their kids aren’t very forgiving. Even if it’s for a good reason, parents often can’t shake the guilt. (Check out 10 Easy Ways to Connect with Your Kid.)

4. Not preventing suffering. 

No parent wants to watch their child suffer. They ask themselves, “Is there something I could have done to prevent this?” Though logically we know not all suffering is preventable because we live in a fallen world, parents sometimes assume it’s their fault. 

There isn’t room here to elaborate on what parents should or shouldn’t feel guilty about (and there is plenty they shouldn’t—really, it’s OK if your teen doesn’t have an iPhone). But it’s important to recognize that guilt can be a good thing. 

The Holy Spirit uses guilt to convict us of sin, lead us to repentance, and draw us closer to God and one another. Guilt reminds parents of who they aspire to be—more present, more caring, more in control of their emotions, and more patient. It also signifies what parents value; such as their kids’ well being and their time together as a family. 

Being a Parent Is Hard

If you have teenagers, there have been plenty of opportunities for failure along the parenting journey. But dwelling on your past mistakes robs you of the abundant life Christ offers. 

I remember my pastor saying to me several years ago, “If you don’t feel free to fail, you don’t believe the gospel.” It was a strong statement, but over time I’ve learned how true it is. If we only believe God’s forgiveness and grace are sufficient to a certain extent, or to cover certain categories of sin, we are not living fully in the freedom Christ offers. I think many parents might say they can accept God’s grace in certain areas of life, but leave no room for error in their parenting

When parents do this, it not only affects their own spiritual life, but their teens’ behavior as well. Some parents shy away from discipline because they feel like they should make up for their failures, or because they don’t want to be too strict like their parents were.

This doesn’t do our teens any favors. They end up pushing limits and using manipulation to get what they want, and the result is a pattern of power struggles that only increases the conflict in the home. The parent then ends up feeling frustrated and out of control, not realizing that it’s their own unresolved guilt and subsequent lack of limit-setting that caused the problem in the first place.

A Biblical Promise for Parents Who’ve “Blown It”

If you feel you’ve failed your teen in some way, take some time to reflect and pray about your own motives and reactions. Then, when your teen is ready, sit down and talk through what happened. Listen to his experience and own your responsibility in it

It’s amazing how powerful an “I’m sorry, and I’ll try to do better next time” can be. All parents and teens experience ruptures in their relationship, but it’s how they go about repairing the relationship that makes all the difference. 

If you’ve blown it (and every parent has), remember this promise: 

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

It’s OK for your teen to see that you’re not perfect. It just might remind him that he doesn’t have to be either. 

Gretchen Raley is a licensed professional counselor living in Austin, Texas. She currently runs her own private practice where she specializes in providing play and expressive arts therapy services to a child and adolescent population. She and her husband, Nathan, are currently enjoying the new adventure of being first-time parents. You can read more about Gretchen's counseling work at her official site.