Article: The Effects of Guilt-Driven Parenting After Divorce

By: Donna Mott

Over the years I have felt guilty for putting my children through divorce. I have felt guilty that their home would forever be changed. I know I am not alone. So many divorced parents feel the weight of guilt, because now their children’s lives become a life of twos. Their kids will be shuttled between two different homes, two different families, two different worlds. We all have felt that guilt at one time or another. The big problem is when that guilt takes over and drives how you behave as a parent. It can manifest in different ways, but, there are three that seem to be most dominant.

1. Guilt can cause parents to be too strict and controlling.

The breaking apart of the family unit, the separating, the one shall become two is painful and messy. Everything can feel out of order and chaotic, making parents feel a loss of control. This can be worse when the kids are with their other parent and out of guilt, the parent will become overly controlling in an attempt to bring some sort of stability and order out of disorder and instability.

Some go as far as to try to control the kids while they are with their other parent. I’ve seen this happen through strict guidelines of how clothing and toys are handled. If you have caught yourself yelling to your child how dare your dad not send your polka dot socks with the pink bows back with you, then this might be you.

2. Guilt can cause parents to be too lenient.

Just as some become more controlling, more parents become the opposite. They don’t set guidelines and boundaries for their children, allowing them to behave however they want. They do not set consequences for bad behavior.

This is a sad situation because oftentimes the parent is worried and racked with guilt, afraid if they do enforce consequences, then their kids won’t love them or want to be with them. Oftentimes, their greatest fear is that the child will want to live with the other parent.

This issue can be a very real struggle for the noncustodial or every other weekend parent. These parents feel guilty because their precious time is already limited. They don’t want to spend it disciplining, setting boundaries or enforcing consequences. They just want everything to be happy.

3. Guilt can cause competitive parenting instead of co-parenting.

This is when parents try to outdo one another to win over the children or make themselves look like parent of the year. This type of guilty parenting can be the worst because the guilt can manifest itself into spiteful manipulative behavior. This is possibly the most predominant of the three and can take different forms.

The mom buys the kid a new bike and the dad finds out and buys little junior a new dirt bike. Dad decides to take the kids to a local theme park next month and excitedly mentions it to them during his parenting time. The next time he picks them up, they say “guess where we went with mom?!” This type is where the “Disneyland parent” falls.

Another form of this is withholding important information about school functions, field trips, parent/teacher conferences or even important medical appointments so that the other parent doesn’t attend. This makes the absent parent appear to not be supportive or care to the outside world and especially to the child, and the attending parent look like parent of the year.

So what can you do instead? These may be painfully obvious but sometimes it’s hard to see the obvious when we are hurting.

First, if you identify your behavior with these, stop. Get help if needed, seek counseling to better deal with whatever is driving this behavior. There are lots of educational information available to learn coping skills and parenting skills.

Second, realize that all children need to feel physically safe, nurtured and loved, regardless of if their family is intact or split up. Focus on that and take your focus off of self and the ex. Focus on the right better. What I mean is focus on being a better father/mother, husband/wife if remarried, and stepparent and not being better than the ex.

Finally, let go of what you cannot truly control and just make lots of memories. Turn your house into a home. To a child, a fun filled day at the park, an epic game of kick ball in the back yard, a deliciously scary ghost story told by the fire, snuggling with the lights off watching a lightning storm or a great movie can mean so much more than an expensive trip or gifts! Just be present whenever your kids are present no matter how much or how little that may be.

It only takes a little of your time to make big memories.

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