When Grandparents Feel Guilty
BY KAREN L. RANCOURT, PH.D
I often hear from grandparents wanting advice about how to handle guilt. Grandma Laura cares for her two granddaughters full time. She wanted to babysit less so she could travel and take classes, but when she tried to discuss it with her daughter, her daughter “guilted her” by reminding her that she, Grandma Laura, took on the babysitting to make up for all the times she wasn’t available to the daughter when she was growing up.
So, is guilt a good thing or a bad thing?
Then there’s Grandpa Bob. While he was babysitting his toddler granddaughter he left hot coffee within her reach, she pulled it over on herself and suffered second-degree burns as a result. He was distraught with guilt.
So, is guilt a good thing or a bad thing? It depends. In general, guilt acts as a moral compass, alerting us that we’re disappointed in ourselves, that is, we’ve let ourselves and/or others down. That said, it’s helpful to talk about two main forms of guilt — constructive (“good guilt”) and destructive (“bad guilt”).
Guilt can be constructive when it results in our doing some soul searching, owning our mistakes and misdeeds, and making changes to keep us on the right path to be the person we want to be. Constructive guilt is healthy and productive; it pushes us to make our lives better either by prompting us to do something or to stop doing something.
Grandpa Bob’s situation can be viewed as an example of good guilt. The guilt he feels can help him be more aware, to be more mindful of everything around him when he is in charge of his granddaughter.
Destructive guilt is unhealthy, unproductive, and can be debilitating. It can keep us stuck and immobilized emotionally. It can prevent us from acting deliberatively and decisively to strive to be our better selves. Destructive guilt can make us vulnerable to being controlled and manipulated by others, as exemplified in Grandma Laura’s situation.
Over time Grandma Laura was able to throw off the yolk of her destructive guilt. She gave her daughter some lead-time to make other child care arrangements and agreed to help out financially. At first her daughter was upset with her, but when she realized she couldn’t guilt her mom any longer, she accepted the changes.
In short, we need to make constructive guilt work in our favor, and we need to free ourselves of destructive guilt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D
Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.