Your child’s illness is heartbreaking. If the condition has a genetic component, your heartbreak may also be tinged with guilt. After all, you are the source of your child’s genetics. Now as science solidifies the connections between genetics and illness, even extending to psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorder, it can seem more and more like your child’s limitations, pains, challenges and hurdles are your fault. Professionals call this “genetic guilt.”
Some parents may share symptoms with their kids while some do not; some parents have children knowing the genetic risk, while the vast majority discover their own genetic dangers only in light of their child’s symptoms. For example, a parent on the autism spectrum may have a child on the spectrum, or a parent who struggles with depression may have a child with the same condition. But sometimes parent can carry a condition without consequences, while the child inherits life-changing symptoms. In this case, genetic guilt can be even worse – it may seem like you have affected your child’s mental or physical health without suffering any ill effects yourself.
But here is the important point: We cannot travel back in time—we can only live our lives in the forward direction. The emotion of guilt looks back at what you think you should have done, or wished that you had done…but no amount of guilt or wishing can change the past. We can only do the best that we can do in the moments that extend from this point forward. And guilt may get in the way of your ability to be the best possible parent to your challenged child.
That is why it’s so important to move through feelings of guilt. In her classic book, On Death and Dying, psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross laid out her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Often parents experience genetic guilt during the “depression” stage – as they begin to accept the truth and inevitability of their child’s diagnosis, they turn these feelings inward. In this case, the transition from depression/guilt to acceptance often comes when parents accept not only their own genetics but the genetics that help to shape the entirety of what makes up their child.
This transition from genetic guilt into acceptance allows you to continue being present for your child and for yourself in a way that ensures that you live with hope for the future. As a parent, your genetics, your parenting, and the environment you create around your child help to shape many of the aspects of your child’s life. Your child’s genetic condition is only one aspect of your child. It is also your genetics that have helped to create a child with the capacity for love and joy.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.