Parents, Can You Separate Sadness from Guilt?

In my last post on life-changing moments, I described how an offhand comment from a parent (or someone else in the life of a child) can significantly impact the life of that child. A friend thanked me for what I wrote and then shared how sad the information made her feel. “I kept thinking of my son who has struggled so much in his life. If I had known about this when he was a child, maybe he wouldn’t have had some of his struggles.”

Wrestle with feelings of regret, and sadness or guilt?

I think about new information that comes along that can be so helpful for new parents but can leave parents with older children filled with regret. Those parents didn’t have this new knowledge, and their parenting practices may have been less than healthy.

A rather graphic and personal example comes to mind.

When I was in middle school, I went to a friend’s house and had the opportunity to meet her family, including her baby sister who was born with little buds with half formed fingers, instead of arms and hands.

Seeing my look of shock and I suppose horror, her mother looked directly at me, not in any way that was shaming but more to give me an explanation. “When I was pregnant with her, I was given what was supposed to be a wonderful new drug called thalidomide to help me with morning sickness. It turns out the drug caused horrible birth defects that of course no one suspected would happen until children like my little daughter were born without limbs.”

To this day I can’t imagine the feelings of sadness, pain and regret this mother must have felt. I wonder if she felt guilty as well. In thinking about these experiences, I am inviting you to consider how often we as parents must wrestle with feelings of regret that can either be coupled with sadness and/or with guilt.

I think it is essential for parents to differentiate between and among these feelings.

There can be sadness where a child has had to struggle because a parent inadvertently caused some kind of pain for that child. This is a level of sadness that might be called grief because it can be so deep.

Coupled with this can be feelings of regret, wishing one could go back in time and change what happened.  Definitions around regret highlight the idea of feeling remorse. Merriam-Webster defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs, self-reproach.” 

Closely associated with sadness and regret is guilt.

Merriam-Webster defines guilt as “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.”

I think guilt is unfair regarding a mistake because there was probably no intention of doing harm. Also, a lack of knowledge or being given inaccurate information could have led to a negative and perhaps tragic outcome making the behaviors, and therefore the outcomes, not the fault of a parent.

There are times when parents probably should feel some degree of guilt for something they say or do because they did, in fact, have information that they chose to ignore. Examples are: allowing kids not to wear a seatbelt and a child is injured in a car accident, not using sunscreen on a child when you know the child burns easily, doing a child’s homework so he or she will get a good grade that leads to that child not being able to do well on a test.

The degree of guilt may be calibrated by the degree of harm that occurs as a result.

On the other hand, differentiating between feelings of sadness coupled with remorse and feelings of guilt is important so that parents are free to embrace their grief and sense of loss without placing an unfair responsibility on themselves for having been intentional or negligent.

That sadness can be profoundly deep!

Regret can come in the form of deeply wishing you knew then what you know now. At the same time, I encourage you to embrace self-compassion, which involves separating out blaming and shaming and laying on guilt trips from healthy sadness and understandable regret.

Kristin Neff has done extensive research on the subject of self-compassion and has written a very tender book with the same title that invites readers to embrace “the proven power of being kind to yourself.” [For more information you can also check out her website at]

In the sea of emotions parents can experience as they nurture and guide their children, I think we are often unprepared for just how much sadness, regret and guilt we can feel to varying degrees, depending on what we perceive is the impact of our behaviors on our children. Separating out sadness and remorse from unhealthy guilt (often accompanied by shame) is an important gift we need to give to ourselves and to share with friends who might be struggling.

I hope my friend can free herself to fully embrace her sense of sadness that probably is coupled with regret and remorse while simultaneously putting the brakes on feelings of guilt. We don’t deserve to be blamed for things we didn’t know about!

  Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you think of some things your parents said or did to you with the best of intentions that you and perhaps they now realize were unhealthy? To what extent do you feel sad that they did not know and therefore at some level possibly harmed you? To what extent do you blame them? How fair are your responses to them?
  2. Are there things you have said or done to your own children because you didn’t know they might be harmful? To what extent can you separate out feeling sad about those mistakes with feeling guilty?
  3. What can you do to promote your own self-compassion?
  4. If your parents are still living, is there a way to offer this to them as well?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network