Sure, you could be more on top of things, plan more activities and play dates, and be more engaging and fun. But we as parents can only do our best given all the daily responsibilities we juggle in order to provide and care for our children. Perfection is not realistic and you should not expect that of yourself. Nonetheless, we frequently ask ourselves, did I do something I shouldn’t have, or didn’t do something I should have done?
Parents commonly express feeling guilt over a variety of things, from how much screen time is too much to what schools to choose for their kids. Parents are constantly looking out for their child’s best interest, so when something goes wrong, it can be easy to wonder, “Is this my fault?” “Have I made the right parenting decisions?” “What could I have done differently?” Guilty consciences of parents may be filled with endless “what ifs” and “if onlys.”
Research suggests that parents of children with disabilities may experience even more stress and guilt than parents of children without disabilities (Miranda, Tarraga, Fernandez, Colomer, Pastor, 2015; Theule, Wiener, Tannock, & Jenkins, 2013). Often, parents of children with disabilities are faced with greater challenges and may have to make more complicated parenting decisions. Strikingly, experts have suggested that parents of children with disabilities may experience up to 10 times more stress than parents of children without disabilities (Smith, 1991).
Common Feelings of Guilt
Guilt over the Diagnosis – When a child is initially diagnosed with a disability, parents commonly blame themselves. Parents may wonder, “What did I do wrong?” “Did I do something during the pregnancy that caused this?” “Did the disability come from my side of the family?” Additionally, parents may blame themselves for not doing something sooner. “If only I paid more attention to early signs,” “What if I had gotten my child checked out sooner?”
Guilt about Treatment Decisions – After a diagnosis is made, parents of children with disabilities are faced with the important decision of finding treatment. The abundance of available treatment choices can be overwhelming, and parents often express guilt over their treatment decisions. “Did we start the treatment early enough?” “Am I getting my child enough treatment?” “Do we have enough funds for treatment?” Furthermore, if the child does not make progress, parents may blame themselves for not selecting the right therapy.
Guilt for Neglecting Other Children – When a child is diagnosed with a disability, parents often feel that they have to focus all of their attention on helping the child. Parents may feel guilty for “neglecting” their other children. “I’m not spending enough time with my other kids,” “I can’t buy that toy for my other child because I need to save money for therapy,” “Am I putting too much responsibility on my other kids to care for their sibling with special needs?”
Guilt for Spending Resources on Self –Parents may also feel guilty for taking time to themselves or spending money on their own needs. “Instead of buying that cup of coffee, I could have put those funds towards my child’s treatment.” “Instead of meeting with friends, I should spend more time learning how to help my child.”
Understandably, parents want to do all that they can to care for their child. Despite all the feelings of guilt and stress that can come with raising a child with a disability, it is extremely important for parents to remember to take care of their own physical and mental health needs. Research has shown that using effective coping skills can play a protective role for parents of children with disabilities who are experiencing significant feelings of guilt and stress (Lyons, Leon, Roecker Phelps, & Dunleavy, 2010). For example, taking time to seek social support from spouses, family members, and friends has been shown to decrease stress levels in parents of children with disabilities. Parents who engage in positive coping strategies and receive social support have also been shown to be better able to relate to their children emotionally, engage in more positive interactions with their children, have fewer depressive symptoms, and have happier marriages (Boyd, 2002). When parents do not cope with feelings of guilt and stress, they can be at-risk for experiencing lower levels of self-efficacy, higher levels of depression, and more negative interactions with their children (Shechtman & Gilat, 2005).
Although it may be difficult, it is important for parents to take care of their own well-being. Parents should try to take a break to meet and talk with friends or spend some time enjoying favorite hobbies. By taking care of their own needs, parents can be better equipped to continue doing the best they can for their children. As a parent, remind yourself that you are not at fault for your child’s disability and that by being there for your child, you are doing the best you can.
If, however, you are experiencing excessive feelings of guilt, depression or anxiety, make sure to seek treatment for yourself. Sunfield Center psychologists are available to help parents and families. To schedule an appointment, please call us at (734) 222-9277.
– Boyd, B. A. (2002). Examining the relationship between stress and lack of social support in mothers of children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(4), 208-215. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/10883576020170040301
– Lyons, A. M., Leon, S. C., Roecker Phelps, C.,E., & Dunleavy, A. M. (2010). The impact of child symptom severity on stress among parents of children with ASD: The moderating role of coping styles. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(4), 516-524. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10826-009-9323-5
– Miranda, A., Tarraga, R., Fernandez, M. I., Colomer, C., & Pastor, G. (2015). Parenting stress in families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. Exceptional Children, 81(4), 1-15. doi:10.1177/0014402915585479.
– Shechtman, Z., & Gilat, I. (2005). The effectiveness of counseling groups in reducing stress of parents of children with learning disabilities. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(4), 275-286. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.115
– Smith, L. (1991). Guilt Plagues Parents of Disabled Youth : Coping: Support groups help adults deal with special demands, experts say. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1991-11-06/news/mn-986_1_parent-support-group.
– Theule, J., Wiener, J., Tannock, R., & Jenkins, J. M. (2013). Parenting stress in families of children with ADHD: A meta-analysis. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 21(1), 3-17. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1063426610387433