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.
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