Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Parents who Feel Both Guilty and Angry About Their Parental Performance

I recently received an e-mail from an irate reader of my blog on Psychology Today. It was in reaction to a post I wrote about parents who were cut off by their adult children acting as if they had no idea why that happened, when in fact the majority of them (but certainly not all of them) have at least a pretty good idea. She told me I was an a**hole who was automatically calling all such parents “dicks” and “a**holes.” I of course actually made no statements like that in the piece.

Of course, if a history of child abuse is involved, which it may or may not be in such cases, parents have the responsibility for that and not their children, at least before the children grow up and have minds of their own. But this was not the subject of the post.

I wrote back to her:

Sorry if the piece sounded like I was calling the parents a**holes. I don't believe that. And of course not all families that have problems like the ones I describe [in the post] are in denial about what's going on. I view everyone in the whole family as all caught within a devilishly-difficult problem to solve that is created by a variety of external factors over at least three generations. 

I never recommend cutting off parents -  even when the parents actually were (unlike you) physically or sexually abusive - and take a lot of heat for advocating that they try to work things out for everyone's eventual benefit (not that it is at all an easy thing to do this).

I of course have no way of knowing anything about particular families like yours without ongoing in-person evaluation and therapy, so what I'm about to say may or may not apply to some degree to your situation. In some families in which parents, in the estimation of the adult children, seem to be frequently beating themselves up with guilt about their worth as parents, the kids worry that they need to fix that. And what they then do is start to piss the parents off on purpose to make them feel angry at them instead of guilty. Hatefulness as a gift of love, as it were..

That last bit referred to how, in the patient with borderline personality disorder’s spoiler role, the adult child is regulating their parents’ de-stabilizing internal conflict over having children (described in this post). When the parent starts to feel too guilty, their children make them angry. When the parents start to get to angry, they lay guilt trips on them.

As I said in my reply, I don’t know if that dynamic applies to the writer and her children or not. So what made me think that it might very well apply? Well, there were certain sentences in the writer’s original inquiry that seemed to indicate a lot of guilt as well as a lot of anger:

Implying guilt:

  • “I have admitted and apologized for the times I was a bad parent, naming specific incidents and listening to them to tell me other times they were hurt by me. I try as hard as I can to listen, be supportive, and not be overbearing.”
  •  “I don’t know that any parent who needs to be told they’re a dick would accept that from you. It made me feel defensive and hurt, all over again. Trust me, most of us a**hole parents don’t realize we’re being a**holes.”  
  • “I really do not know why my kids, especially my younger daughter, hold a grudge against me.  They have never said anything that I didn’t acknowledge, apologize for, and try to make right.”   

Implying anger/defensiveness:


·         Calling me an a**hole for allegedly implying she might be an awful person when I hadn’t actually said anything of the sort, and accusing me of “taking sides.”

·         “If they are mad because I turned out not to be perfect, but downright human and not always the best decision maker when it came to parenting, well, I at least know I always loved them immensely and would have, & still would, die for them.”


You be the judge.


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