Nieman: Pediatrician prescribes self-compassion, kindness for parental guilt

At the start of my clinical practice in 1987, I had very little appreciation of the importance of parental guilt. Very few parents brought it up as a personal struggle. Over the past 36 years, I have observed a definite pattern of increased parental guilt.

Dr. Peter Nieman, examines patient 5-year-old Jhilmil Hatty Thursday afternoon at his office. Dr Nieman will be contributing a column for the Vitality. Photo by Chris Wood, Calgary Herald

Dr. Peter Nieman, Calgary Herald Feb 25, 2023

Guilt may take many forms but, in essence, it all can be boiled down to a parent struggling with a feeling that harm was caused, or is being caused, as a result of falling short.

Some dictionary definitions include:

  • Feelings of deserving blame, especially for imagined offences or from a sense of inadequacy.
  • Frequently engaging in a state of self-reproach.
  • A feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person.

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the 1980s. I shall never forget an editorial written by a professor at Johns Hopkins (whose name I intentionally will not mention; perhaps we can simply call him Prof. O) The topic was breastfeeding. Prof O made no apologies – in fact he boasted about it – when he said, “I make sure that I make moms who are not keen on breastfeeding feel guilty about their attitude.”

Breastfeeding provides an ideal way to nourish newborns and babies, but to go as far as making a mom feel guilty if she decided not to nurse, or worse, when she tried her best and yet failed, seems to lack compassion, empathy and understanding. Occasionally, I still meet a mom who tells me that she encountered a clinician who made her feel guilty and started to judge, with a clear intent to use guilt as a motivating factor.

It seems to me that when it comes to optimal nutrition, prevention of childhood obesity, discipline, vaccinations, and dealing with a child with autism, or perhaps something as extreme as the death of a child, that parental guilt is often present.

I belong to a group of parents who lost a child to suicide. We have met for almost three years now and we continue to meet together every Wednesday evening. We were counselled by experts in bereavement. Among ourselves, we had numerous discussions on why some of us to this day, and probably forever, will blame ourselves for the loss of a child. I have concluded, based on first-hand experience, that some parents probably will never end their self-flagellation, regardless of any therapy offered. They argue that they deserve blame for a perceived inadequacy.

I am sure a well-known television advertisement, which reminds parents to be patient with a moody teen, although well-intended, does not help. In the ad, a teen is shown in a moody state; one hears screaming and shouting; a door slams and then there is a long pause before the ad ends with these haunting words: “If you think it is hard living with a teen, try living without them.”

We are still far, far from getting clarity about the exact causes of the increase in autistic children. So often, when I sit down with parents they either tell me about the guilt they carry; they blame themselves for having caused it. Some parents don’t bring up guilt, but then with open-ended questions, and after I am aware that they trust me, I gently ask them if they have experienced guilt.

A floodgate of tears often follows my gentle probing. As a trained life coach, I often sense the need to compassionately nudge them back to the practice of self-compassion. I have found two experts very helpful when it comes to the cultivation of self-compassion: Christopher Germer from Harvard and Kristin Neff from Austin are brilliant in helping their readers or YouTube viewers discover healthy ways to be kind toward oneself.

When I encounter a parent who suffers from parental guilt, my “prescription” is to encourage the cultivation of wise self-compassion; appropriate kindness and honesty. Hindsight is always 20/20, and if we knew then what we know now, we may have made different choices. Who knows for sure?

Researchers always seek ways to measure data. A scale known as Guilt about Parenting Scale, ironically abbreviated as GAPS, is a relatively recent academic attempt to quantify parental guilt.  One can assess one’s level of parental guilt by searching online at: Guilt About Parenting Scale (GAPS), University of Queensland.

Parental guilt can become a complex problem at times. Recently I encountered a poor mom who blames herself for allowing the family to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Although quite uncommon, her son developed myocarditis due to the vaccine. I am sure one can find parents who carry guilt because they decided not to vaccinate and now the child has long-COVID.

This year, Dr. Nieman celebrates 36 years of practising pediatrics, 24 years of writing this column for the Herald, and less than one year of being a grandparent.

Source Calgary Herald


The Guilt about Parenting Scale (GAPS): Development and Initial Validation of a Self-Report Measure of Parenting Guilt, and the Relationship between Parenting Guilt and Work and Family Variables, Haslam, D, Filus, A. & Finch, J. J Child Fam Stud 29, 880–894 (2020).

Also see
Five tips for parental guilt The University of Queensland
Parent Guilt: What Is It? Victoria Taylor on Medium

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