Heather Kamia’s nine-year-old daughter was recently begging to meet up in person with particular friend. The mom had to remind her why this wasn’t possible for several reasons, including the fact that her little sister is immunocompromised. Her daughter’s response: “You don’t know what it’s like to be a kid in a pandemic.”
Like Kamia—program director of Metro Youth and Family Services at the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota—just about every parent in the country has been confronted with these kinds of guilt-inducing situations for over a year.
“Children need school and friends. When kids’ needs aren’t being met, parents feel guilty—even when it’s not their fault,” says Jessie Borelli, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “And the reality is that many of our kids’ psychological needs aren’t being met right now.”
And though it’s important for parents to foster children’s healthy development, too much fretting over tiny details can make parents feel like they’re always failing, explains Borelli, whose lab investigates the link between close relationships and health. Throw in the pressures of the pandemic—financial stress, mental health concerns, and social isolation—and these feelings of guilt can be amplified.
But if living through a global crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t control everything. “In any difficult situation, there are going to be lessons,” Kamia says, just as her daughters cut in on this phone interview to ask about lunch. Before the pandemic, she says she would have been overly apologetic about that kind of interruption. Not anymore. “We’ve had to give ourselves more grace,” she says.
As the United States gradually reopens, many families are hopeful for a fresh start—one with attainable and sustainable expectations, and less blame and shame. Cultivating this culture of forgiveness requires hard work, experts say, but it can lift a heavy burden off parents’ shoulders and help them raise healthier kids.
America’s guilt problem
American moms are exceptionally good at feeling bad, says Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She interviewed 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States for her 2019 book, Making Motherhood Work, and found that reconciling career and family responsibilities can be tricky anywhere. But only one nationality viewed this struggle as a personal failing.
“American moms stand apart in blaming themselves,” she says. “Women in other countries realized external forces were to blame.”
What makes the American mom mindset so counterintuitive, Collins says, is that they have to deal with obstacles that moms in other Western countries often don’t face. For example, many other countries offer paid parental leave, universal health care, and affordable childcare—support systems that relieve many parenthood stresses.
She adds that during the pandemic, many American parents had to contend with the challenges of virtual learning, while other countries prioritized keeping schools open. Although this was a public health precaution taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it also pushed many women out of the workforce.
Expectations about what it means to be a good parent have also evolved considerably in the past few decades, Borelli says. Children used to be largely responsible for entertaining themselves, and there was little talk of social-emotional learning. “Our whole culture has shifted toward the importance of parents in promoting children’s healthy growth,” she says. Overall, that’s a positive development, but many parents now believe they should take on an unbearable level of responsibility, Borelli says.
Research shows that parents who stretch themselves too thin and then blame themselves when things go wrong are at risk of anxiety and depression—and, at times, poor parenting decisions. Feeling guilty can lead parents to give in to their children in an overly permissive way, Borelli explains.
“It’s not the best message for kids to think: I can make people do things they don’t want to do when they feel bad,” she says. “Kids like limits, too. When they’re in control [instead of their parents], it conveys to them that things are not OK.”
The power of forgiveness
Finding a way forward is especially vital after a year of so much adversity. Processing what you’ve lost or what has changed is easier when you’re guided by forgiveness, says Benita Page, program director for the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
“If we hold on to anger and grudges and guilt, we’re out of balance and we might not make good choices,” says Page, whose nonprofit spreads a message of forgiveness to children and has added similar programming for parents. “Forgiveness is how to get to a place of healing so we can be OK.”
A key message is that forgiving yourself is often just as important as forgiving others. When parents are experiencing emotional turmoil over their own mistakes, they can pass that ethos onto their kids. “You’re a role model for them,” she says.
Peter Samuelson, senior director of evaluation and impact for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which leans into forgiveness in its new Resilient Parenting program, says one of the main goals is not to let past mistakes or the label of “bad parent” dictate the future.
The program works with communities that face systemic inequities, which can exacerbate feelings of guilt. “They’re held up to a rubric that doesn’t reflect reality,” Kamia explains, giving an example of a parent with transportation issues and inflexible work hours having to miss a child’s basketball game. The curriculum encourages parents to be less judgmental about their actions, and instead focus on what they can do differently.
“With forgiveness, you still have consequences for actions,” Samuelson says, but you’re not paralyzed by them. “Forgiveness gives you the freedom to do as you intend.”
Letting go of guilt
Even if you’ve gotten better at managing guilt over the past year, Page says that forgiving yourself and others is a personal journey that can last decades—so give yourself time.
One of the first steps she suggests is identifying your family’s strengths. You can’t change the past, but you can channel your skills so you can keep improving, she says. For example, one parent complained that her family had gotten short-tempered with one another—they’d argue, slam doors, and stew. Through classes, she learned to react to frustrating situations by taking a deep breath and using compliments to steer the conversation in a positive direction.
“She found it led to everyone in the family being more willing to talk things out,” Page says.
Kamia adds that parents should look at their guilt with the proper context. For instance, many working parents felt bad about the lack of support children had once schools shut down without options for childcare. But an even more wrenching situation was when parents who couldn’t work from home felt as if they were putting their health—and their family’s—at risk.
So therefore, Kamia says the path to forgiveness also involves asking, “What can you be present for? What can you control?”
Talking about feelings can also give you a new perspective on a situation, Borelli says. Maybe you feel guilty that your child couldn’t have an in-person birthday party or had to wait for help with school assignments while you were busy with work.
“Talk with your child about what they’ve learned and how this helped them,” she says. “Try to cultivate in yourself that your kid is strong and can grow from this experience. There are good things to be learned from struggling through mild adversity, such as recognizing that we are resilient, and recognizing the value of the important things in life, like connections with other people."
Brandy Green, a practitioner who works with parents through the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota curriculum, says examining how you were raised is another important self-reflection exercise to help alleviate guilt. That’s because we often pick up behaviors from our parents, and these habits may influence how we raise our own children—for better or, sometimes, for worse.
For example, when kids repeat questions like “Why can’t I go back to school?” or “Why do I have to wear a mask?” frustrated parents may answer, “Because I said so.” Green says that response, a product of their upbringing and a depleted reservoir of patience, might be standing in the way of healthier forms of communication. Her advice: Try to recognize these patterns so you can change them.
Above all, learning how to navigate your emotions—including feelings of guilt—is one of the most valuable things a parent can do for a child, Kamia says.
“At the end of the day, we’re their compass,” she adds. And after this past year, they’re sure to need extra help with directions.