Handling the guilt of that moment when you hate your kids By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.WIllustration by Jana Christy
When Dan's baby wouldn't stop screaming for the fourth night in a row, he was at his wits' end. How could this tiny infant cause him so much stress? Why wouldn't she stop? She was healthy and cared for, but for the past two months, she had made Dan's life miserable.
When 9-year-old Jeana rolled her eyes and spewed a sarcastic remark at her mother for the sixth time in five minutes, Susan finally lost her cool. "My God, will you stop being such a bitch to me!" she screamed at her daughter.
When Mary and Steven were awakened at 4 a.m. by another call from the local police about their teenage son, Justin, they felt simultaneous rage and defeat. Talking hadn't helped; counseling hadn't helped; grounding, screaming and threats hadn't helped. Why was he doing this? Why did he insist on making their lives such a nightmare?
When these parents cooled down, they were still upset about their child's behavior, but they also felt tremendous guilt. They realized that in the midst of their rage, they hated their child. Their fury was so intense that they had unspeakable thought: they actually wished their child had never been born.
The idea of hating one's own child is unacceptable, humiliating, repulsive. And yet, it happens. What kind of parent would allow that kind of feeling to enter their consciousness? The guilt is extreme, the shame overwhelming.
While the thought of hating one's child may seem over the top, it is a feeling almost every parent has had at some time or other. We are human. Good parenting is a stressful job. Even the calmest of parents will hit their limit at some point and wish their child would "just go away." To help us manage our guilt at these times, it is important to realize we are not alone.
It is also important to make a distinction between hating our child and hating something that they have done. In the instances above, none of the parents actually hated their children. Rather, they hated what the child had done. This distinction should always be made clear when speaking to a child who has misbehaved. For example, "I hate that you have messed up the family room again," instead of, "I hate you for messing up the family room."
Hating what your child has done is a normal parental emotion. Feeling pangs of guilt after that experience means you care for your child; you are feeling bad for having negative thoughts. Guilt pangs are signals that our conscience has gone into action. They are the result of a built-in "police system" in our psyches that let us know we have acted in an inappropriate manner.
Learning guilt Guilt is learned by most people early. As children, they act in certain ways and are told their actions are "good." They are rewarded or praised for those actions. Then, they act in other ways and are told their actions are "bad." They are scolded or punished.
Eventually, these voices of judgment create our conscience, which is with us all the time, letting us know when what we have done is good or bad. When emotionally-healthy people do something good, they feel proud; when they do something bad, they feel shame. The parents in the above examples were experiencing the normal repercussions of guilt after doing something they judged as bad—feeling as though they hated their child. The feelings and the guilt are perfectly normal. But how the guilt is handled in the aftermath, however, can either help or hinder them in becoming better parents.
How you respond In the first example, Dan let his guilt go. He knew that he really did not hate his baby; he was just reacting to a physically and emotionally exhausting situation. When he felt guilty, he saw it as a signal he had done something wrong. He picked up his child, cradled her and told her he loved her. Realizing that it was his stress, compounded by a lack of sleep, that helped trigger his rage, he did something to remedy the situation: He called a friend to spend the next night watching the baby so he could get some sleep. After getting some rest, he was better able to tolerate his daughter's draining behavior.
In the second example, Susan let her anger and guilt eat away at her. She watched her daughter run out the door to the neighbor's house and immediately began to berate herself for losing her temper. She used her guilt as a chance to remember everything she had ever done wrong as a parent, and began to worry about how she may have ruined Jeana's self-esteem. She spent the next few hours ruminating about the interaction, playing the scene over and over in her head until she was worn out and had successfully transferred all of her hateful feelings from her child to herself, lowering her confidence in herself as an effective parent.
In the third example, Mary and Steve struggled with their guilt together. Their problems with Justin had been long-term, and they realized their feelings of animosity toward him were also beginning to affect their marriage. They decided that even if they couldn't change Justin's behavior, they could try to keep their own relationship intact so they could work together to weather this storm. They made an appointment with Justin's counselor to help them cope with their difficult situation. Learning how to manage their stress over Justin and to stop blaming each other helped them to work together as a team to better deal with their son's behavior.
Effective steps The way we handle ourselves when we feel as though we hate our children can affect our ability to help our children and ourselves live healthy lives. The following tips can help when negative feelings crop up:
Forgive yourself. It is always hardest to get along with the people we live with. They are there every day giving them more opportunities to rub us the wrong way. Because we love our children so intensely and want them to be safe, healthy and successful, their behavior affects us even more strongly. Along with being irritated when they misbehave, we may feel disappointed or scared as well.
Use your feelings as a signal. If you feel strongly that you would like to get away from your child, it may be that you need to. Taking a break from the source of our stress can help us to manage it better later. Depending on the depth and duration of your feelings, you may need 15 minutes by yourself, a baby sitter for an afternoon or an entire weekend away.
Get perspective. If you are extremely angry, walk away from your child before lashing out. Then take some time to focus on the good in your child and how much you love each other.
Focus on the positive. Make a list of your child's best qualities, or of all the wonderful times you have shared together. Look back at his baby pictures, or watch him while he is sleeping. Create more positive memories by doing something fun together—something that helps you delight in your child and appreciate him. If you need help, ask a teacher or scout leader to describe your child's good qualities.
Get help. Classes in stress reduction, anger management or general parenting skills can be found through many adult community education programs, park districts, libraries or counseling centers. Hotlines and organizations such as Parents Anonymous are listed in your local phone book, as are community counseling centers that offer personal counseling from people who are trained to help parents deal with their kids. Always remember that seeking help is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.
ABCs of handling guilt
Accept it. Recognize your feelings are a normal signal that you have done something you judge as wrong. Break the cycle. Don't dwell on your guilt. You did something you're not pleased with, but it is over and can't be changed. Forgive yourself and let it go. Apologizing to your child, either verbally or in a note, can help you to do this. Change the future. How could you think and act differently that would prevent you from being in this situation again in the future? Picture yourself making different choices or write down your ideas so you can pull them out to look at them when the need arises.Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 23. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.