Experiencing Parental Guilt

As a parent, dealing with your child’s mental illness diagnosis can be one of the most difficult challenges you can go through. Regardless of their age, you start asking yourself a lot of questions. What did I do wrong? Am I to blame for this? What could have I done to prevent this? Asking all these questions can become overwhelming, and often leads to what is called parental guilt. Many parents with children diagnosed with a chronic illness, including mental illness, feel that they are in some way responsible for their child’s diagnosis. In this article, we explore parental guilt, how you can alleviate it, and what to do if you know someone who experiences guilt

Why do parents feel guilty?

There are several reasons why a parent might feel guilty for their child’s diagnosis. Some believe it is because of certain habits they had prior to the child’s birth, especially mothers during pregnancy, or even because of something they did not do (for example, not taking certain vitamins and supplements). Parents can feel that they are to blame for their child’s mental illness because sometimes genetics are involved, such as with anxiety or depression, and they can feel a sense of guilt that they are to blame because they passed down their genes to their child.

Guilt does not only come from things before and during the pregnancy. Some parents question if they did something to cause the illness; should they have been more strict, less strict (for example)? Parents may feel guilty because they are experiencing caregiver burnout and start to feel helpless. They may be at the edge, and do not know what else to do to alleviate the stress of a particular situation or of caregiving in general. Parents may also feel that no matter what they do, things are still difficult. They don’t have all the answers they need, and this can lead to feelings of discouragement because they do not have the answers to help their child, leading to more guilt.

What you can do to alleviate guilt

If you are a parent of someone with a mental illness and have feelings of guilt, it is important to be compassionate with yourself. Know that you are strong, and are doing the best you can with the resources you have. Try to rewire your thoughts (easier said than done obviously, but crucial nonetheless). Remind yourself that you are doing everything you can that is in your control. If you keep thinking about the genetic component of your child’s mental illness, know that yes, genetics play a role, but there are so many other factors that are outside your control that contribute to your child’s condition. Mental illness is complex, and there are many factors that we can’t control. When these guilty thoughts invade your mind, it is important to practice self-care. There are many ways to practice self-care, so do things that you know will help you.

What to do to help someone who feels parental guilt

Do you know somebody who is experiencing parental guilt, but are not sure how you can help them? The best plan is to be empathetic and offer validation. Instead of saying things like “It could be worse”, say things like “It must be difficult; talk to me about how you feel.” By acknowledging their feelings, you are letting them know that you are acknowledging them. Being supportive is also a way to help them. Offer to run errands for them, or tell them you are there for them. Listen to what the person needs, and be supportive. Never underestimate the power of listening. ˆ

– Gabrielle Lesage

We have a support group for family and friends of someone with a mental illness. For more information, click here.

To find more resources for families support, click here.

Please click here for references.

As seen in the Spring 2020 newsletter.