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How to cope with parental guilt?

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No parent would willingly do something that they knew would make their child unhappy. Yet here you are, you and your partner, preparing to divorce and to rock their world.

There is no doubt that during the pregnancy and maybe even before that you had read how important stability is in a child’s life.  

You went forth into parenthood with every intention of being the grey haired old couple standing arm in arm at the cottage door waving off your great grandchildren together. Now, you’re putting your kids through a divorce.

It’s a difficult emotion to come to terms with but there are some ways of thinking about and coping with parental guilt.

Remember you are not alone.

Many parents feel a crippling guilt as they agonise over what their break up is doing to the children.  Often the children add to it, by expressing anger or upset because they don’t want you to split up.

You may already be experiencing a whirlwind of feelings wound up in the break down of your marriage (anger, fear, grief…the list goes on) and then there are the sad faces of your offspring making you feel guilty, anxious and depressed.

Take a moment to remember the reasons that lead you to this point.   

If you and your partner can no longer live together then you have to part.  Having taken that decision, you have made a massive step towards changing a situation that was damaging everyone involved.

It is very unfortunate that you are separating, but it will help you if you can focus on being kind to yourself and your children and making the best out of the situation.

We are taking it as read that you have decided that there really is no other option than divorce.   

No one would or should divorce on a whim or as the result of one argument.  Even affairs can be accommodated given time and patience and the careful rebuilding of trust.

The end of the line is just that:  The point that has been reached where nothing further can be tried and the only kind thing to do is to put the marriage out of its misery.  Wallowing in guilt will not help.

This is not something that you have done wilfully to try and punish anyone, indeed as loving and caring parents, it would not be possible for anyone to feel more punished or guilty than you do for your actions.  It is regrettable and it needs to be managed carefully but it is not the end of the world for you or your children.


How to cope with parental guilt

Look around you for reassurance.   

There are dozens of ‘blended’ families surviving very nicely and even benefiting from the wider family group they now belong to.  Stepbrothers and sisters can become as close as siblings and the wider family can offer up many unexpected bonuses.

There is also the fact that research shows that the vast majority (82% ) of children thought that it was better to divorce than to continue to live in an unhappy and tense environment.

Now though, in the early days, it is important that you keep your head above the waters of the murky guilt swamp.   

Find a way to rise above the guilt and think of how you can parent well. Concentrate your efforts on turning your guilt into a determination to make the best of the situation for your children and try to steel yourself for those moments when the kids are upset or angry.

Stay calm when this happens, and say that while you are very sorry that you and your partner have had to part, there was really no way around it.


How to cope with parental guilt

Get the children involved in the decisions that need to be made about the aspects of your lives that are going to change.   

Ask their opinion on anything from choosing breakfast cereal to what kind of new downsized car you should buy.

If they are involved they are less likely to judge.  If they have input into decisions that need to be made they will be more accepting of change.

The days of staying together for the kids have gone.

There is much weighty evidence that living in a perpetual war zone is far more damaging to children than the effects of a divorce.

The initial stages are painful but there are benefits to all when living happier conflict-free lives. Children need to grow up understanding that a marriage or any relationship between adults should be one of mutual respect and support.

Growing up in a house in which the air is heavy with insults and demeaning remarks, hurled between you and your partner is a recipe for disaster.  All this will teach children is how to be critical and hurtful, intolerant and mean.


How to cope with parental guilt

Guilt is good for no-one.  

It robs you of any useful ability to help your children through this difficult time and sends a message that you are responsible for what is happening to them, for what is turning their world upside down.

This needs to be an early ‘life lesson’ for them. Sometimes things happen and it is no-one’s fault. The marriage has ended. It is sad, it is going to mean big changes for everyone, but it does not signal the end of life on the planet.

They will need to understand that this is something that is not going to change. Keep calm and keep that guilt at bay.

There are benefits in teaching your children to take action when unhappy.

If you have been unhappy, to teach your children that you can make difficult decisions and be resilient in the face of adversity is an enormously important life lesson.

You are modeling that it is possible to rectify a difficult situation and that they can tolerate the pain of change to move towards something better.

This means that if ever a similar situation arises for them in relationships or their profession, they will have the courage to take action just as you did.

Final pieces of advice:

  • Communication is key to allaying any unfounded fears that your youngsters might have.  
  • Find things you can continue to enjoy and be grateful for
  • Set future goals and pleasurable experiences for you all.   
  • Try to find the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference.


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