"I wasn't there for him, so I avoided setting limits with him." Ray was talking to me about his son Brad, who had begun drinking and running with a bad crowd. However, in assuming he would solve one problem, he actually created a second problem, and now his son was worse off.
Fortunately, Ray saw the flaw in his thinking. A self-diagnosed workaholic, Ray had, from his own report, been too wrapped up in his career to connect adequately with his son. However, now that Brad's problems were serious, Ray had reprioritized his life and was making up for lost time.
I asked him, "Why did you think that not setting limits would help?"
"I know, it doesn't make sense. I think I felt guilty for not being there enough when Brad needed me. So I thought the time I did spend with him should be positive."
Guilt fueled Ray's flawed thinking, as it does for many parents. Both guilt and fear are internal emotional states that often prevent parents from setting the right boundaries that can help a teen learn responsibility. So it's important for you to understand how these emotions can affect your own parenting and what you can do to resolve them.
Guilt is a feeling of self-condemnation over doing something that hurts your child. When parents are too harsh, let their kid down, or are absent in some way, they will often be harsh and critical with themselves. This feeling of self-judgment can be very strong and intense.
However, guilt is not a helpful emotion. Some parents mistakenly view guilt as a sign that they care about their teen. But guilt is more about the parent, because guilt centers on the parent's failures and badness rather than on the teen's difficulty and hurt. Guilt does nothing to help the teen's situation. Instead, guilt creates an obsessive pattern of thinking that cycles around, making you beat yourself up. Guilt keeps you from doing something that will make your teen mad, disappointed, or frustrated, because you want to avoid even greater and more intense guilt feelings.
If you struggle with guilt and want resolution, learn to experience remorse instead. Remorse, the healthy alternative to guilt, centers on the other person. Remorse is an empathic concern for the pain that your teen feels. It is also solution oriented. If you feel remorse over something you have done that has hurt your teen, your focus is on helping your teen heal from the damage you have done. The apostle Paul explained remorse in terms of the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10:
"Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."
When you feel remorse toward your teen, you free yourself to be sad about what you have done and to repair the effects. When guilt doesn't weigh you down, you are free to set and keep limits with your teen, so that your child can benefit from experiencing structure, clarity, and consequences.
So face your guilt feelings. Tell yourself: I will sometimes let my teen down. I will not always be what my child needs me to be. Understand that this is inevitable, but don't stop there. When you do something that hurts your teen, put your focus on how this affects her, and allow yourself to feel remorse instead so that you can give her the structure and boundaries she needs. You will help your own life as well as your teen's.