Dear Broken Parent: It’s Not Your Fault!

It’s really, really hard to not take your child’s behavior personally. In fact, it’s downright impossible at times. But I promise…it’s not your fault. Here’s why:

Sad young mother (age 30) with her crying daughter in background.

I confess. I used to be really, really mad at my kid. Scratch that: enraged. I was enraged. Every time he acted out, destroyed something in my home, terrorized one of my other kids, hurt my wife, wound up in the principal’s office, did something to the neighbor kid, I saw red. My blood boiled. I would react to him out of anger. I said so many things I regret. I did things I wish I could go back in time and undo.

I carried this for a looooong time. Angry at my kid…angry that our home was under siege…angry that we couldn’t just be a normal freaking family for once…and then the cycle would repeat. Angry, angry, angry!

Somehow, I got through my anger. Not sure how, but one day it subsided like a receding tide. And that’s when the guilt set in.

I felt guilty for being so angry. Guilty for the way he behaved in public. Guilty that I couldn’t stop it. Guilty for the things he said and did in my home, and in public. And then guilty for making him afraid when I lost it. Guilty! “Aren’t parents supposed to raise better-behaved kids?” I constantly ranted. I gave guilt full permission to press down on me and convince me that I was an awful parent and that this all was my fault. I believed that if I wouldn’t have been so angry for so long my kid wouldn’t be such a mess. “It’s my fault he acts out. My fault he’s detached. My fault he can’t get through a school day without an incident. My fault he hoards food. My fault he steals things. My fault….my fault….my fault.”

This voice played over and over in my mind like a broken record.

And then one day a close friend looked at me and said, “Mike, his behavior is not a reflection of your parenting. It’s the trauma he went through long before he became your son. It’s not your fault. It’s not Kristin’s fault. You’re doing the best you can! Stop beating yourself up about not knowing any better. You’re human. We all make mistakes.” 

My friend was right. As his words sunk deep into my mind, I saw a light I had never seen before. It was a realization. It wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t my kid’s either.

Nope. He didn’t do this to himself. He didn’t cause his brain to suffer permanent damage. After listening to my friend I sat alone in my office (when I used to have one of those “real” jobs), and allowed the truth, the sorrow, the grief, and the freedom of this to wash over me. For the first time on this journey, I released myself from guilt. And I released my precious child from guilt.

It wasn’t my fault.

It wasn’t his fault.

I’m human….he’s human.

I’ve made a million and a half mistakes. So has he.

This was the fault of trauma.

Broken parent (just like me)….it’s not your fault. Your child’s behavior is a product of trauma. You didn’t do this. I know it’s hard to not take this personally, and not feel guilty for their behavior. I know it’s hard to not believe that you’re a bad parent and her bad choices are because of you. I know. Trust me friend…I know. I want you to virtually look at me and listen. It’s not you. Your child is speaking from a place of fear….a place of darkness….a place that you and I know very little about. It’s not your fault.

Release yourself into the freedom of this truth.

Question: Ever been there? Ever felt the weight of guilt over your child’s choices or behavior? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jason Palmer

    For me, I had to let go of the limiting belief that I was in control of everything. It’s just not true. Letting go of that idea was a dangerous thought, but it allowed me the freedom to see the reality that I was not the one at fault. Let go of the guilt – the shame. Great article!

    • Hey Jason, thanks for your insight. Control has been a big struggle for me in the past too. So glad you liked the post. 🙂

      • Jason Palmer

        I found you through the podcast great stuff keep it up!

    • Allisonm

      And when I allowed that dangerous thought, lots of other dangerous thoughts came right along with it. Thoughts like, “I wonder what would happen if we stopped thinking about society’s and systems’ expectations and do what actually helps my child regulate.” Or, “How about we do whatever it takes to get my child to a place of regulation and just stay there–until it becomes his new normal–before we start trying to expand little by little, staying regulated instead of chasing regulation.”

      My guilt and shame was premised on my failing to get my child to meet others’ expectations. The only valid expectation is that I will keep trying to find a way forward that actually works for him and us as a family. When we took this approach, our child became regulated. It became our new normal. He can now successfully handle substantially more stress than he could before–without losing regulation. I no longer live in fear that he will harm someone. Dangerous thinking is now my M.O.

  • Peter Redwine

    It’s harder for me, I think, because we have had our sons ever since they left the hospital. Our now-3yo was four weeks old (after being born 10 weeks premature) and our now 2yo was two days old. Not bio-related, but both substance exposed. Because we’ve had them so long (and we have 18 & 20 yo daughters of our own), I often forget that the pre-natal trauma they experienced changed their brains on a level they’re not even aware of. Most of the time things are great and there are a couple of minor sensory issues we deal with. Sometimes, however, the switch gets thrown and they flip out over what seems to be nothing with a vehemence and lack of logic worthy of an Antifa protest. Those are the times I find it hardest to rein in anger, I think.

    We also adopted our 3yo’s now 5yo sister. She came to us at 2 yo and couldn’t talk, was hysterically afraid of most running water (especially showers), and other behavioral considerations. While we don’t have documentation, we’re certainly believe she was also exposed, as well as being subjected to dental, physical and verbal abuse. Since all of that was before two, those fears are even more indelible, but just as real and inexplicable.

    Thank you for sharing your blog.

    • Me too. 2 of our kids were infants when we brought them home and had “good” care before that. And yet, it’s been very, very hard because of behavior issues. I forget too because it’s like I did give birth to them. And then I have to fight the guilt of thinking it must have been something I did wrong.

    • You are so welcome Peter. We are cheering for you.

  • Mom of 2 teens

    Dear Mike,

    I really needed to read this article today. We’re in our first year of parenting our youngest boy (13 years old) and I’m finding it challenging to avoid owning his behaviours and taking them personally. Guilt and anger are emotions that have been eating at me over the last few months and hearing your story and advice is bringing me some peace and reassurance. It’s also helping me to recognize that I need to change the way I’m looking at our situation. So thank you for sharing your story and advice.

    I also want to thank the others who’ve commented on your article. Their insight, too, has helped me realize I need to work on some things myself in order to find some peace for myself and my family.

    • Sorry to hear you are struggling. The first year is so hard and you do wonder what in the world you’ve done. We’re pulling for you. You are not in this alone. There is hope for you and for him.

    • I’m so glad to hear this. And very glad to hear that this post resonated. I know exactly where you are at. Been there too. Thanks for sharing your heart here!

  • Linda Snyder

    Oh my gosh!! This SO speaks to me! Angry at my child! I felt hostage to her mad and sad! Every day!! Nothing i did would make it better!! I was “dancing as hard as i could” and even mad about that! I didnt feel i could parent my quiet child effectively! And now, almost 5 years later, we are so much better!! But oh how the guilt set in!! My daughter is now diagnosed with mental illness. Do i feel part of that trauma?? Oh yes!! Because i was mad! I did not respond as a therapeutic parent!! I didnt know anything about therapeutic parenting or children from trauma. I have learned all of it along the way!! I dearly love both of my kids!! I guess theres also guilt in knowing i find my daughter so much easier on meds. I am just now learning to let go of the guilt little by little! I just didnt know!!

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Most of us didn’t know. It feels so much better knowing we aren’t the only ones. There is healing in grace and knowing we walk the same road together.

  • Brittany

    We are in the throws of this right now with our 11 year old foster daughter. The exhaustion, guilt, fear, and anger….so much anger….has created a pressure cooker in our house. And we KNOW the outbursts and defiance are from a place of fear and unresolved trauma, but, when you are standing there, toe to toe with it, that is NOT what is on your mind. And I feel guilty as a mom for the anger I feel. The anger towards her, towards the family and circumstances that traumatized her and often times, even anger towards God. The anger and guilt are so heavy. And it’s hard to see through it. We’ve had her for four months and it feels like 4 years. This is the longest she has ever remained with a family. My husband and I and our 4yo bio daughter are so tired. I wish I had encouragement to share but today, this family is gasping for air.

    • Hang in there, Brittany! That’s what we’re here for. We want to walk you through the dark side and celebrate with you on the other side too. We are cheering for you. You are not alone. You can do this. Do something for yourself everyday. Even if it’s just 5 min. It will help keep you going. Lifting you up!

      • Brittany

        Thank you!

    • Linda Snyder

      I never thought I’d survive the first year and wasn’t sure I wanted to. But trust me! Things DO get better!! They need to know we are not going anywhere and honestly, we bonded through the tough times too!!

      • Brittany

        Thank you Linda!