How To Deal With Parental Guilt And Regret (It Happens To The Best Of Us)

Do you sometimes regret the way you’ve behaved as a parent?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that we strive to get our kids to behave; and yet sometimes we’re not proud of the way we behave as parents.

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We’ve all yelled and lost our temper.

We’ve all marveled at how such a small person can make us feel such enormous anger.

And, we’ve all felt the pang of regret and guilt, wishing we could take back things we said.

So, rest assured you’re not alone. In this article, I want to share what I’ve told countless parents who’ve talked to me about regret and guilt—and what I tell them about how to parent in a way that feels better for you AND your children.

Do You Worry You’ve Scarred Your Kids For Life?

My mission is to teach parents how to be “The Captain” of the household— parenting with a calm, steady hand.

But we all know that this isn’t easy to pull off, especially when your kids are testing your limits.

I had a mother write to me saying she was inspired by the ideas I teach, but that sometimes she thought it was “too late” for her and her kids.

She had a lot of regret over all the times she hadn’t been The Captain of the Ship for her kids. She wrote:

“I’ve yelled and threatened and even said: Go live with your father if you think I’m so terrible!”

She added that she was worried she ruined her chances of giving her kids the kind of happy childhood she had hoped to offer them. Had she damaged her kids permanently?

First, Let’s Look At What It’s Really Like To Be A Parent (You’re Human!)

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t know of any parent who doesn’t feel some degree of regret over things they have said or done in a difficult moment—myself included.

It is just plain hard to be a parent. Whoever says otherwise isn’t telling the whole truth. It’s exhausting, worrisome, relentless, and often thankless.

And remember—just because you became a parent doesn’t mean you are suddenly transformed into a member of a different species!

Parents are still ordinary people—although it’s hard for our kids to comprehend that. We still get tired, worried, overwhelmed, and stressed. We still need love and care, and we still feel fragile when we haven’t had rest or food or the touch of a loving friend.

The Ups And Downs Of Parenting: It’s A Fact Of Life

Here is what I believe: We are meant to do the best we can on any given day. Sometimes our best is amazing; we handle a child’s whining just as the parenting books described! Yay for us!

And other days, our best is simply getting them fed and keeping them safe. That’s it. Our tank is empty and that is all we can muster up.

Mother hugging her son

On those days, a child’s defiance or meltdown pushes us past our limits and we collapse. Those are the times when a less-than-desirable version of ourselves shows up—the one who shouts:

“Fine! Go live with your dad!” or “What is wrong with you? Your sister never had trouble with math!”

Sometimes it almost feels like we have been possessed by some demonic force that pushes words out of our mouths that we would never utter if we had our wits about us.

But that’s the thing: we don’t always have our wits about us. Sometimes we lose our way. A child’s refusal to put on her shoes becomes a personal affront to our authority. A teenager’s insistence that she looks fine in that outfit is transformed into a life or death battle for control.

It happens. But when it does, we need to explore—with compassion for ourselves—why we lose our cool. Otherwise regret and guilt will diminish our efforts to be good parents.

How To Maintain Our Cool

The Way Forward: Understanding, Compassion, And Forgiveness

I’ve been a family therapist for decades and have written two parenting books and I still lost my cool with my son at times.

Like you, I am a product of the childhood and parenting I received. My folks were well meaning, but like all parents, they only knew what they knew; no more, no less. Forging a path where I paused to consider the thoughts that fueled my hurt or anger was a new process. I am still on that path.

What’s wonderful is that my now adult son and I talk frankly and honestly about the times when I wasn’t the mother I aspired to be. I’m able to apologize for times when I said things that were hurtful, and he can let me know what he might need to heal.

Mostly, he reassures me that from the vantage point of an adult, he now understands that every parent makes mistakes and has limits. I think my candid confession about the regret I feel over my missteps has helped my son develop a greater capacity for self-acceptance and forgiveness. I know that speaking from that place of vulnerability has brought us closer together.

Replacing Guilt And Regret With Peace—For You And Your Kids

A little guilt isn’t a bad thing; it can motivate you to stay on track. But, if you have been abusive toward your children, I highly recommend family counseling. It will be important to establish a way to recover and heal from times that you may have crossed a line.

But, if your regret is over basic situations when you were impatient or unkind, release the idea that your kids have been permanently harmed. Apologize from your heart without defending your actions. Find out what they need to make things right. And humbly ask their forgiveness.

Then discover what your kid’s behavior is teaching you…about yourself.

In my program Parenting Without Bargains, Battles or Bribes, I will help you explore the underlying triggers that cause you to “lose it” in the first place, so that you and your kids can fight less and connect more.

You’ll learn how to interrupt your usual automatic patterns that cause you to go off track when your kids are being challenging—whether it’s resisting your attempts to implement routine and getting them to do their homework, or whether they’re being downright defiant and talking back.

You’ll also learn practical strategies you can use to reduce meltdowns and bad behavior from your kids in the first place, making it so much easier for you to keep your cool as a parent and enjoy more peaceful interactions with your kids.

I’ll teach you how to make what I call “course corrections”—small adjustments in parenting that add up to big shifts for you and your kids.

Where before you may have dwelled on what you did wrong and how you lost control, you’ll have real tools at your disposal to get back on track and create harmony in your household.

So often we can get stuck on one negative interaction and miss the big picture in parenting. Your kids are only under your roof for a short time, but your connection with them will hopefully last a lifetime:

A Healthy Relationship With Your Kids For Life

May you continue to learn and grow as a parent with a greater sense of kindness toward your children—and toward yourself.


Susan Stiffelman

P.S.In Parenting Without Bargains, Battles or Bribes, you’ll learn about the three “modes” of parenting: Captain, Lawyer, and Dictator.

Guess which mode causes you to feel the most guilt?

That’s right. Nobody likes a dictator.

And being a lawyer with your kids won’t get you far, either.

Here’s how to be the calm, steady captain:

Cool, Calm, And In Control

Parent Without Yelling, Power Struggles and Guilt

  • Critical skills to raise happy, healthy kids
  • Make parenting the most fun you’ve ever had
  • Ensure your kids feel loved, accepted and understood
  • Co-parenting secrets to help your kids thrive
  • Common parenting mistakes you must avoid
  • Less tantrums and tears, more snuggles and laughter

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