Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Guilty Parent

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 14, 2012

Shana, fifty-six, feels guilty for how she raised her son, Maxx, currently twenty-five. She saw her husband, Tom, Maxx’s father, physically and emotionally abuse him, and this was a major reason for their subsequent divorce, but she cannot forgive herself for not protecting Maxx when he was little. “Maybe you can apologize to Maxx,” I say, understanding that a retrospective analysis of parenting mistakes can be extraordinarily painful. “I can do that,” Shana replies, “but it won’t change how much  Tom hurt Maxx’s self-esteem. ” “Yes, that’s true, but it will still help him to know that you have been thinking about him and that you understand some of the underpinnings of his self-doubt. “Yes, but how do I forgive myself?” Shana asks in a desperate fashion, as if forgiveness will be instantaneous as opposed to gradual. “Forgiveness is a journey,” I remind her. “Not a nice journey,” she responds with tears. “Right, it is hard to see how one’s behavior caused harm to people who depended on us,” I say, understanding that the nurturing role is fraught with misgivings and missteps.  “Understanding Maxx is very important, even if it means understanding how you let him down,” I say, promoting the notion that grasping Maxx’s psychic building blocks will go a long way to help Maxx. Like psychotherapy where understanding is a  tool for healing, understanding one’s child is  a key ingredient for his/her  future self-confidence.

2 Responses to “The Guilty Parent”

  1. Shelly said

    Not to criticize in any way, but during Maxx’s childhood and especially when her husband emotionally and physically abused her son, did Shana ever verbalize her outrage or try to stop the abuse? If yes, is the guilt that she stayed in the marriage and put her son in the path of an abuser? If no, why not? If Maxx can forgive her, then maybe she can learn to forgive herself. People have all sorts of reasons of staying with abusers. What were hers?

  2. It is not a criticism in that Shana recognizes that she acted poorly towards Maxx. Yes, that is her guilt- that she did not take Maxx out of a harmful environment.

    The “all sorts of reasons for staying with abusers” often boils down to self-esteem. Shana did not feel that she could survive without Tom, both financially and emotionally. It took her years to feel that she was strong enough to be on her own, but during those years, Maxx was growing up and was harmed by Tom.

    Thanks, as always.

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