Parents often expeience guilt over not being able to live up to a superhero myth.
Photo: Photo illustration / Fotosearch
Photo: Photo illustration / Fotosearch

It's OK if you're not a superhero parent, Atlanta experts say

Babies arrive kicking and screaming and needing, well, everything.

New parents are immediately, and for years thereafter, confronted with economic and emotional demands and myriad decisions – including (but certainly not limited to) what to feed baby, where to live, what school to attend, what pediatrician to see – that directly affect their little humanoid's life.

The pressure on parents to meet all expectations and nail every decision is enormous; the probability of missing the mark in some fashion, either legitimately or only in the eyes of an overly critical mom or dad, is a virtual certainty.

High personal expectations, peer pressure, the pace of life and the Internet's bottomless pit of contradictory information increase the likelihood a parent will look into a mirror and see an inadequate face.

These inadequacies, born by the gap between the parent a person is and the superhero parent she wants to be, breeds guilt, a pervasive emotion in parents.

To help understand parental guilt and cope with it, Dana Goldman, a licensed and nationally certified counselor at Stone Cottage Counseling in the Old Fourth Ward, said there are five things parents should keep in mind when experiencing guilt, followed by five actions to keep guilt at manageable levels. You love lists, right?

Goldman's 5 things for parents to remember

Guilt is inevitable: Goldman said she's yet to meet a parent completely satisfied with the job he was doing. So, parenthood is a golden ticket to the guilt factory, and all of us get one.

Not all guilt is bad: The positive spin? Inevitable guilt is proof of genuine concern and a higher standard — a conscience. It also means you have genuine concern for your child and acknowledge your imperfections. Guilt, if managed, can be quite the motivator, especially when staring into a pair of innocent little eyes.

Don't dismiss the basics: Are you familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It's easy to beat yourself up for not being able to cast a spell to overcome every obstacle on your child's journey down her yellow brick road. Instead of lamenting your shortcomings, consider Maslow's pyramid. Did you provide your child food and shelter? Does he feel safe and loved? Yes? Well, a lot of kids don't have those basics; you provided them for yours. Reach around until it hurts and pat yourself on the back.

Kids need role models, not superheroes: Kids have plenty of fictional superheroes., Goldman said. What they really need from a parent is to see a flawed person work through imperfections, get rocked by real life, experience a range of human emotions, deal with it all and return to a good place. Do that without the help of superpowers or fancy gadgets and you've contributed mightily to a child's emotional maturation.

Critique the brochure: Every parent is just a handful of touchscreen taps from the wonderful lives of friends and colleagues, putting the stimuli into the super-guilt-spin-cycle and locking in on perceived inadequacies. Social media has utility, of course. Unfortunately, those on the receiving end often forget that most Facebook posts aren't complete reality; they are the poster's brochure. The truth is, every family has its challenges. If a couple appears to be crushing the parent thing, they're probably not. They might be compensating for their own guilt.

Feeling better? With better context on parental guilt, the next obvious question is, what can moms and dads do about it? Simple: Don't feel guilty.

We all know it's not that easy, though.

There is no off switch for parental guilt. It is a complex condition caused by complex circumstances. To prevent it from becoming debilitating and adversely affecting a person's ability to parent effectively, Goldman said there are a few actions to consider.

Make time: Many parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids. So make some subtle changes now. Schedule a weekly walk or a dinner night where everyone, sans electronic devices, eats at the dinner table. What about an afternoon once a month where the child gets to pick the activity? Goldman said it's important for kids to know that mom and dad are interested in their lives beyond grades and other serious stuff. Shut them out now, and they may return the favor during those volatile teenage years.

Negative > positive: Disciplining a child is an important part of a parent's job. As children reach puberty, parental corrective action can quickly devolve into a yell-fest that, in its wake, sows more guilt. Be conscious of your tone when teaching children right from wrong. Good parenting often isn'tpopular.

Assess your priorities: Take account of your life. Does it support your parenting goals? Are you working too much? Maybe a major reset – new job, new house — is in order to calm that ever-guilty conscience.

Support group: Simply put, find one. Formal or informal. Friends or a local group of strangers in parenthood. Faith-based or agnostic. Just make sure it's real, brutally honest and non-judgmental. If the group makes you feel better, it's working. If it feeds your guilt, move on.

Consider therapy: Guilt is a tricky emotion — potentially good in proper doses but hazardous when chronic. If your guilt is pervasive, if it's compromising your relationship with your child (thereby contributing to more guilt), seek professional help. This is about you and your child, not your pride.

Susan Boyan, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Cooperative Parenting Institute in Atlanta, identified parental guilt as a "... natural and universal emotion." She encouraged parents to keep perspective on the process: Moms and dads should do their best, anticipate mistakes and forgive themselves.

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