07/13/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Overcoming Parental Guilt: Perspectives From Brain Biology

Guilt is that nagging sensation that we have not done all that we can do -- that somehow we have short-changed ourselves and people we love because of something that we could have avoided. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes find ourselves in deep states of regret or guilt about things we could have done. What are some of the factors that contribute to this guilt, and what can you do to overcome this?

(1) Recognizing what you could have done is not necessarily what was possible: When we think about what was possible (spending more time with your children, not having moved so much, not going through with that divorce) we often forget that at that time there were other things going on that made that impossible. When we remember, our brains selectively hone in on memories. The whole situation is not accurately remembered by the memory centers in your brain and sometimes your recall is just false without your knowing this [1]. When recalling what was possible, remember that your recall is probably faulty. You have probably forgotten how intolerable it was to live with your partner prior to the divorce or how difficult it was to find a job that did not require traveling.

Point: Our memories are often distorted. As a result, guilt is often not accurate.

(2) Your Genes Are Not Entirely Responsible: Genes are those most fixed parts of our biological makeup that can be transmitted from generation to generation. Often, I hear parents being regretful about their own depression or anxiety or their parent's alcoholism. Genes are only partly responsible for many conditions. Every person is an individual and you are probably less responsible as a parent for how your child turns out than you think [2]. That is not to say that you cannot influence your child, but rather, that your time is usually wasted blaming your genes for your child's discomfort. Besides, even if that were true, there would be nothing that you could change.

Point: Your attention could be better spent on worrying about something other than your genes.

(3) Fear of Imperfection: It is interesting how many parents feel that they are less than perfect. The problem here is often that they think that something is perfect. (What?) There is much written on what ideal parenting is, but I have seen so many situations where this "ideal" does not make a difference or is complicated by other less than ideal factors. Even though we like to behave as though we are fully in control and have conscious brains only, the unconscious brain often determines most outcomes and is largely out of control [3].

Point: I always emphasize to parents that the ideal is to do "your" best rather than to do "the" best. Also, teaching your children this lesson will help them understand themselves in a less judgmental way.

(4) Guilt Glue: Guilt is a way of holding onto something. But it is not a very effective or pleasant way to do this. When parents fear loss of their children as their children mature into less dependent beings, they will do almost anything to hold onto the image of their children in their own minds. Guilt is an adhesive that keeps your children stuck in your mind because negative emotions capture the attention center of the brain [4], often more than mild positive memories.

Point: Ask yourself how else you can face your anxieties about your children growing up and how else you can hold onto your precious children while letting go of what you need to in the process. Are you using guilt glue to hold onto your children, and if so, is there some other way to do this?

(5) Confusing guilt and accountability: Parents are accountable for their children, especially when they are not old enough to be independent. However, parents are also accountable to themselves and their loved ones to live their lives fully. This can be difficult to handle. Often, the brain's conflict detector senses two opposing priorities (living for yourself vs. your children) and this activation results in guilt [5].

Point: Take the brain out of the conflict state. Guilt is not an answer. Clarify for yourself how to balance the priority of yourself and your children and recognize that sacrifice is not worth it when it is masochism or self-harm. Harming your own life does not bode well as a message for your children.

Thus parental blame can be harmful to the parent and child. It is important to recognize that these brain-based mechanisms help to understand the precarious condition of being human -- but "blaming" biology is not effective either. In a culture where blame sometimes finds temporary relief in biology it would behoove parents to explore and minimize their blame rather than transfer it. Transferring it is not as effective (e.g. where ADD is over-diagnosed [6]). It only provides temporary relief.

Many parents are doing their best, and if their best involves getting better, what else can we expect?

1. Kim, H. and R. Cabeza, Trusting our memories: dissociating the neural correlates of confidence in veridical versus illusory memories. J Neurosci, 2007. 27(45): p. 12190-7.
2. Merikangas, K.R. and N.C. Low, Genetic epidemiology of anxiety disorders. Handb Exp Pharmacol, 2005(169): p. 163-79.
3. Lee, S., R.D. Rogge, and H.T. Reis, Assessing the seeds of relationship decay: using implicit evaluations to detect the early stages of disillusionment. Psychol Sci. 21(6): p. 857-64.
4. Decety, J., K.J. Michalska, and Y. Akitsuki, Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuropsychologia, 2008. 46(11): p. 2607-14.
5. Zahn, R., et al., Subgenual cingulate activity reflects individual differences in empathic concern. Neurosci Lett, 2009. 457(2): p. 107-10.
6. Singh, I., Doing their jobs: mothering with Ritalin in a culture of mother-blame. Soc Sci Med, 2004. 59(6): p. 1193-205.