Why we all feel guilt towards our parents — even if we grew up in a healthy home

Hillary McBride and a panel of experts unpack why familial guilt is universal, and how it affects our mental health.

Experts explore the interaction between family and guilt in Other People's Problems' first live show

(Sarah Claydon/CBC)
Listen to the full episode48:34

We all know guilt is a challenging emotion to deal with. But when it comes to our families, why is it so hard to avoid? 

In Other People's Problems first live show, recorded at the HotDocs Podcast Festival, host and clinical counsellor Hillary McBride guided a conversation about the interaction between family and guilt. 

McBride honed in on the common emotional experience of feeling guilty about defying your parents and feeling guilty about harbouring resentment towards them.

Together with a panel of experts, she looked at how parents and the environments that we grew up in shape our experience of the world and our mental health in turn.

To understand how guilt towards our parents develops, first we have to understand guilt as an emotion in itself.

What is guilt?

Other People's Problems host Hillary McBride discusses how family life affects mental health at the HotDocs Podcast Festival. (CBC)

McBride says our sense of guilt stems from our moral system, which is learned. Guilt manifests when we betray our core values.

"The way that I like to explain guilt to people is to say that it's our internal knowing that we violated our values system," she told the audience at Hotdocs in Toronto. "But our value system is constructed."

Dr. Tina Malti, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says research reveals guilt typically develops in children between the age of four and six, affirming "it's not something that we're born with."

With our value systems developing at such a young age, it is primarily our parents and other adult authorities that guide our sense of right and wrong.

As we get older, we come to establish some of our own values, but McBride says the value system we inherited as children is persistent and will often appear in the form of guilt, even as adults.  

"Sometimes we have values that are leftover from our family of origin that might not serve us anymore, but the guilt pops up as a way of reminding us 'Hey, you're doing something that you probably shouldn't be doing,'" she said.

The transactional nature of love

Kwame McKenzie is director of Clinical Health Equity at CAMH and co-director of the Division of Equity Gender and Population in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Kwame McKenzie)

CAMH's Director of Health Equity, Kwame McKenzie, says the idea that you have to love your parents is cross-cultural, inspiring guilt for those who don't abide.

"We [have] these models or these cultures which allow us to say 'here are the roles that people have ... here's how that works.' It helps us work as a society.  And one of the things you do is you love your parents. But the truth is everybody doesn't love their parents. But that's not what we're sold."

Mackenzie says the "transactional" framework of how we relate to one another informs the guilt felt for not loving your parents. Our parents brought us into the world, and for the most part, provided us with the tools to survive.

"Shouldn't they get something in return for that? But it doesn't really work like that… We feel guilty if we don't feel [love towards them]... It's not a crime."

Hillary McBride adds that all parents "have limitations," even those who did their best to maintain healthy homes.

"They made mistakes and they likely failed you as a kid at some point. And when they did — whether they apologized to you, or showed you how to make things right, or yelled at you, or hit you, or left you altogether — it all made a mark on who you are today."

Cultural differences

But since guilt is a product of our cultural values, the particulars of what we feel guilty for — and the degree to which we feel it — will be different depending on your upbringing.

According to Malti, a sense of familial obligation is more acute in some cultures.

Dr. Tina Malti is a professor of psychology and founding director of the Laboratory for Social-Emotional Development and Intervention at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Tina Malti)

"The impact of our culture, background, and so forth, can make [guilt with respect to your parents] better or worse because there are societal expectations and those differ," she told McBride.

At the live show, one audience member shared how being the son of two Vietnamese refugees amplified the sense of responsibility he had towards his mom and dad.

"Feeling like you have to really establish yourself and do something to make your parents proud, because they've risked so much of their lives to be in this country," he said. 

"Growing up my parents always encouraged me to pursue things that I was passionate about — but they also always encouraged me to contribute to the family in ways that sometimes conflicted with the pursuit of my passions, and so that created a lot of guilt for me. It also created a lot of resentment."

And McBride points out that even how we process guilt — how we react to our feeling of guilt — is different for every culture.

"There's some socio-cultural narratives about who's allowed to feel emotions … Learning what to feel, how to feel and what to do about it is central to you being the person that you want to be," she said.

"It's our job to figure out [whether] that guilt is because I'm doing something bad now, or because the value system that I had growing up is telling me that this isn't something I should do."


Did this post resonate with you? Try an experiential exercise, guided by Hillary McBride, intended to help you tap into your inner child, and process any unresolved feelings. 


For more on growing beyond what we inherited from our parents, listen to Other People's Problems entire live show near the top of this page.