DO YOU HAVE “CHILD GUILT”?

No mat­ter how much you love your el­derly par­ents, some­times it feels like you can never do or give enough. SASHA GON­ZA­LES asks the ex­perts how to deal with the guilt that comes from be­ing an adult child.

Simply Her (Singapore) - - Simply Her -

Ways to deal with the guilt of be­ing an adult child.

“It’s nor­mal to feel guilty about our par­ents, but it’s not healthy to feel guilty about ev­ery lit­tle thing that we can’t do for or with them”

Clara*, 38, al­ways feels guilty when she drops her three-year-old son off at her mum’s place in the morn­ings. She says that her mum, Ber­nadette*, 68, com­plains that she doesn’t see enough of her.

“She tells me that I never stay to talk when I send Lu­cas* over and pick him up in the evenings,” Clara shares. “It’s true, but I’m al­ways in a rush. My hus­band, son and I have lunch with Mum ev­ery Sun­day, but she says it isn’t enough, and that she doesn’t know what’s go­ing on in my life. It makes me feel bad.”

Most of us with el­derly par­ents ex­pe­ri­ence some form of guilt. For San­dra*, 40, it stems from be­ing an only child liv­ing thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away, in New Zealand. “When I mar­ried a New Zealan­der and moved away 10 years ago, I felt hor­ri­ble for leav­ing Mum and Dad be­hind,” says the dance in­struc­tor.

“I visit them once a year and they visit ev­ery other year, but that’s not enough. They’re both 70 years old and not in the best of health. If one falls ill, how will the other cope? We don’t have a big fam­ily so there might not be any­one else to take care of them,” adds San­dra.

Types of Child Guilt

The most com­mon type of guilt we ex­pe­ri­ence as adult chil­dren comes from feel­ing that we can’t take care of our el­derly par­ents, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of Dr BL Lim Cen­tre For Psy­cho­log­i­cal Well­ness at Gle­nea­gles Med­i­cal Cen­tre.

“Look­ing af­ter our par­ents fi­nan­cially, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally is not easy, es­pe­cially if they are sick and com­pletely de­pen­dent on us. Care­giver fa­tigue may set in, and it’s nat­u­ral to feel frus­trated. We may re­sent them for in­con­ve­nienc­ing us, then feel guilty be­cause they raised us and we love them dearly. This guilt may in­crease our frus­tra­tion, mak­ing us more ir­ri­ta­ble to­wards our par­ents, and con­se­quently mak­ing us feel even guiltier.”

We may also feel bad about not spend­ing enough time with our par­ents. With work, fam­ily and so­cial com­mit­ments, we may not be able to visit or talk to them as much as they would like – and we may even choose other peo­ple or ac­tiv­i­ties over them. Adding to the guilt is the knowl­edge that Mum and Dad may not be around for much longer and that we’re miss­ing out on be­ing with them in their fi­nal years.

Fall­ing short of our par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions can also make us feel guilty. This can range from not be­ing able to pro­vide for them ma­te­ri­ally, to mak­ing life, ca­reer or re­la­tion­ship choices that dis­ap­point them. When we feel that we may never be “good enough” in our par­ents’ eyes, it can make us feel like huge let­downs.

When to Let Go of Guilt

“Child guilt” is in­evitable for many of us, but car­ry­ing it around can have a neg­a­tive emo­tional im­pact. Daniel Koh, psy­chol­o­gist from In­sights Mind Cen­tre, says: “De­pend­ing on the de­gree of guilt, we may be­come self-crit­i­cal, and ex­pe­ri­ence shame, em­bar­rass­ment and re­morse. And how we deal with th­ese emo­tions can have de­struc­tive con­se­quences. For ex­am­ple, blam­ing our­selves can di­min­ish our self-worth.”

It’s nor­mal to feel guilty about our par­ents, but it’s not healthy to feel guilty about ev­ery lit­tle thing that we can’t do for or with them. No child is per­fect, and we can only do our best in any given sit­u­a­tion, adds Dr Lim.

A lit­tle guilt mo­ti­vates us to im­prove our re­la­tion­ship with our par­ents, but ex­ces­sive guilt may lead to anger, frus­tra­tion and de­pres­sion. It’s more pro­duc­tive to fo­cus on im­prov­ing the sit­u­a­tion. That’s where com­mu­ni­ca­tion comes in.

Deal­ing with Child Guilt

If you’ve done wrong by your par­ents – say, you opted to meet a friend in­stead of mark­ing a spe­cial oc­ca­sion with them – then ad­mit your mis­take and apol­o­gise as soon as pos­si­ble. The longer you take to do this, the more the guilt will fes­ter.

Think of how to avoid fu­ture mis­un­der­stand­ings and mis­takes. See things from their per­spec­tive and try to un­der­stand their needs.

It’s also im­por­tant to learn why you feel guilty, Daniel says. Analysing your neg­a­tive emo­tions can pre­vent them from spi­ralling out of con­trol.

Han­dling Our Par­ents’ Guilt Trips

Deal­ing with guilt we place on our­selves is one thing, but what about when our par­ents lay a guilt trip on us? “Most of the time, when they do this, it’s not to de­lib­er­ately make us feel bad,” says Dr Lim. “They may do it be­cause they feel lonely, hurt, sad, anx­ious or ne­glected, or fear­ful of grow­ing older. Telling us that we don’t spend enough time with them or im­ply­ing that we have failed them is an at­tempt to get us to no­tice how they’re feel­ing.”

When this hap­pens, broach the is­sue with your folks. Ask them what they’re up­set about. They may hate the “empty nest” feel­ing and just crave your com­pany ev­ery now and again, for ex­am­ple.

Ask how you can make them feel bet­ter, and re­lieve their lone­li­ness when you can’t spend time with them. Help them de­velop a healthy so­cial net­work or cul­ti­vate hob­bies. This will al­le­vi­ate their iso­la­tion, im­prove their qual­ity of life, and ease your emo­tional bur­den.

Your par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions of you should be ra­tional, re­al­is­tic and fair. If they con­stantly or de­lib­er­ately make you feel guilty, un­cover the trig­gers for their un­rea­son­able be­hav­iour.

“If you do your best to spend time with or pro­vide for your par­ents, they should no­tice your ef­forts and be un­der­stand­ing on oc­ca­sions when you can’t give them what they want or need,” says Dr Lim. “Ex­plain the prac­ti­cal con­straints that pre­vent you from ful­fill­ing cer­tain obli­ga­tions to them, such as a lack of time or money. Be­ing hon­est – with­out get­ting up­set – helps them see things from your point of view as well.”

Pay at­ten­tion to your par­ents’ needs con­sis­tently, and not just when they play the guilt card. Pan­der­ing to your folks ev­ery time they try to make you feel guilty or liv­ing your life around theirs to avoid a guilt trip only re­in­forces this be­hav­iour in them.

*Names have been changed

OUR EX­PERTS: Daniel Koh, psy­chol­o­gist from In­sights Mind Cen­tre Dr Lim Boon Leng, con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of Dr BL Lim Cen­tre For Psy­cho­log­i­cal Well­ness at Gle­nea­gles Med­i­cal Cen­tre

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