11/11/2014 11:27 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2015

Burdened With Guilt Over Past Parenting Mistakes

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I have been sober for a few years and my children (ages 10 and 12) and I are doing fine these days. But I can't get over the guilt I have for my past behavior. I created a lot of craziness when I was drinking, which also led to the end of my marriage. When I try to talk to my kids about our past they say it's fine, but I still feel terrible for how I wasn't there for them.

Nearly all of us experience parental guilt. While addiction may have led you down some especially dark roads, I hardly know a parent who doesn't look back with some regret for the ways that they showed up for their children during challenging times.

It can be agonizing to recall hurting those you love, especially your children. But just as physical pain motivates us to seek treatment for what could otherwise become a serious condition, some remorse helps us make better choices in the moment to moment decisions we make throughout our day.

There is no way to undo the actions of your past. But if you do the work of mourning for what you and your children have lost, you will find yourself more available to fully enjoy the life you are living with your children now.

Have you done some counseling or taken part in a 12-step program to help address the deeper elements that led to your addiction? Facing inner demons will help you step out of the cycle of guilt and shame by allowing you to grieve for the losses of your past, while moving into healthier ways of coping with life.

Let your children know that you understand they may have big feelings about the challenges that came with your addiction. Acknowledge how scared or angry they might have felt when weren't there for them in the past. Let them see you as capable of hearing their truth.

If they are willing to offload old feelings, they will discover that they don't have to bottle up unpleasant emotions. But if they aren't yet interested in talking, don't push it. As you prove yourself to be steady and reliable, they will trust that they don't have to protect you from whatever pent up feelings they may be carrying from the past.

Ultimately, the best way to make amends to your children is to bravely wake up each morning committed to your sobriety. Grieve for the moments you lost and the mistakes you made, and encourage them to talk when and if they are ready -- perhaps with a professional. Meanwhile, focus on building a close, loving relationship with your children now, and allow yourselves to fully embrace the good life you are creating together.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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