Is there such a thing? Is it possible to make the endless mistakes we invariably make as parents and remain free of guilt? Would we want to be? Isn't guilt part of what compels us to improve--- to lower our voices, threaten less vehemently, or stop saying the hurtful things we later regret?

The truth is, the man or woman raising our kids (that would be us) is, in the end, a human being, subject to the same insecurities and challenges as they were before they had kids. Just because we have a child doesn't mean we stop being fragile, worried, hungry, tired or having a difficult day. If we want our children to grow up to be joyful, resilient and authentically themselves (coincidentally the title of my book!) we need to model healthy adult behavior for our kids when we've lost our cool.

And one essential requirement for living a joyful adult life is to learn to forgive and accept our own frailties and mistakes.

Those of you who’ve heard me speak or who have read my articles or interviews ( know that I advocate strongly that parents inhabit the position of Captain of the Ship in their child’s life. It provides tremendous comfort to a child when their parent calmly inhabits the role of North Star and One in Charge in their life. When combined with secure and loving attachment—this also awakens kids’ natural instincts to cooperate and follow.

When a youngster is uncooperative and the parent uses intimidation to overpower them, it’s a sure sign that the child is in charge. After a parent has recovered from losing it--issuing ever escalating threats or ridiculous bribes—they often feel guilty. While I do believe it’s important to acknowledge our mistakes and examine what got us into the pickle that caused us to lose our parental footing, I don’t believe guilt is the answer.

Guilt feeds shame, and shame does not motivate humans in a healthy way. Guilt and shame promote defensiveness, numbness and rationalization. People who feel chronic guilt are masters of deflecting responsibility and blaming others. They have trouble learning from their mistakes, because they don’t fully feel them.

Instead, when parents behave in ways they later regret, I recommend the following:

1) Rewind the scene from the moment you lost it. What elements were in place that contributed to your becoming temporarily possessed by your alter ego? Were you tired? Hungry? Or did you have a story in your head about your child’s behavior that triggered your reactions? (See my booklets, interviews and other articles for more about looking at what we make our children’s behavior mean.)

2) Own your mistake courageously. Acknowledge specifically where you started going off track. Notice if you ignored a little voice in your head that suggested you leave the room or keep your lips tightly together until those waves of anger or frustration subsided. We often allow the intensity of our emotions to make us do and say things we know we’ll regret even as we’re doing and saying them-- and that little voice is telling us to STOP.

3) Apologize to your child. Step into your adult role fully and show them that people make mistakes, and that you can imagine it may not have felt very good to hear Mommy or Daddy saying or doing those things. Make it clear that regardless of how you behaved, it was not their fault, nor is it their responsibility to act in a particular way so that you can keep your cool. It is always your job to manage your reactions, not your child’s, regardless of whether they’re naughty or nice.

Guilt, blame and shame are emotional cripplers. They inhibit our ability to fully feel our feelings when we make mistakes, and therefore prevent us from really learning when we’ve gotten it wrong. By owning our weaknesses with an intention to improve, and by committing to remain kind and accepting of ourselves, we give our children the freedom to do the same.

Next time you channel a version of yourself that doesn’t reflect the mom or dad you genuinely want to be—the one that’s patient and kind and manages your impulses—recognize that you’ve gotten off course, brush yourself off, and apologize. Feel your sadness and consider how you might avoid getting into that situation next time. You’ll then be ready to move on, forging a new path towards being the parent you truly want to be.

Susan Stiffelman, MFT offers parenting teleclasses, phone and private coaching, and is the author of the upcoming, COOL, CALM AND CONNECTED: RAISING JOYFUL, RESILIENT KIDS WITHOUT POWER STRUGGLES, ARGUMENTS AND MELTDOWNS

She can be reached at

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Author's Bio: 

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed marriage and family therapist, educational consultant and parenting coach. Through her private practice, public presentations, workshops, teleclasses and website, she has become a source of advice and support for around the world. Her book, Cool, Calm and Connected: How to Avoid Negotiations, Arguments and Meltdowns With Your Kids, will be released soon. Susan can be reached at, or