Parental Guilt and Compassion Fatigue: Part 1

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Parental Guilt and Compassion Fatigue: Part 1

Caucasian blonde mom  in foreground in bathrobe holding head in frustration, while kids fight in background in kitchen.

Let’s just clear the table of the thanksgiving turkey and agree, all parents who remove their children from the home to residential care are empathetic !  Even if your teen has scolded you into believing otherwise. Because of your great capacity to just take it, parents become exposed to a variety of traumatic situations, either by witnessing them or learning about them from their children or other professionals.  If this hasn’t happened then on to the next blog.

As we move into the holiday season I want to take a few minutes to remind parents of a couple items.  One, the extent of your relationship with your child creates a range of vulnerability to guilt. Two, because you are and have a sense of human empathy, you face exposure to a common parental malady of compassion fatigue.

This blog will be divided into two sections.  Let’s address guilt for a moment.  Quite often we, as professionals, experience  concerned questions from parents who have second thoughts about sending their child to treatment in a galaxy far far away.  It is difficult to fathom the conditions and series of failures that have to exist to release a child to a residential treatment program.  This guilt of making mistakes with a human being intensifies during the holiday season.  Parents feel guilty they have messed things up forever.  Guilt produces action either functional or dysfunctional. Grounding your parental belief in fault or failure is very unproductive.  So let’s take a simple look at how your child’s pathology has evolved.  This may help alleviate Holiday guilt.   I have broken down how adolescent pathologies develop into three spheres.

The conditions can exist in:

  • The child’s (biology, perception of experience, internal belief)
  • the child’s system (family, external belief)
  • the system’s environment (peer group, school, neighborhood)

So see, parents really only have to be guilty about your child’s system, the home, the family.  The other two conditions of pathology you may think you should have control over, but you really don’t.  Normal reactions to your guilt and having a loved one away in treatment are often identified by some of the following emotions:

  • Sadness, Depression
  • Regret, Inadequacy
  • Bewilderment, Dismay
  • Loss of a child
  • Anger
  • Worry, Stress, High Anxiety
  • Relief, Decreased Anxiety
  • Failure as a parent

As you experience the awareness of these emotions, really have some processing time with your support network.  (I hope you have or are developing a support network)  Perhaps your child is coming home for a holiday visit and the anxiety ramps up a few notches.  Ask your therapist for assistance to filter the reality and guilt myth you may be feeling when you have conversations with your child.  Discuss these strong emotions listed above with helping professionals and other supportive parents who may have insight from past experience.  The danger to be aware of is letting the guilt dictate spending, making things happier than reality indicates, or halting the relationship from being nurtured due to emotional exhaustion.  If you do not take time to energize yourself it will be difficult to assist with your child’s cognitive/emotional needs.

John Nielsen
John Nielsen
I have been practicing Social Work with adolescents since 1991. My field of expertise includes residential work as a therapist and teacher. I have worked with a variety of diagnoses using CBT, Sand play, 12 step Substance Abuse, Equine assisted therapy and exploring standard measures as tools to assist the health of teens. My current interest is using research measurement and assessment to advance the science of psychotherapy. I am married and have four adult children. I spend free time in the outdoors and my passion is race horses and golf.

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