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Making Kids Feel Guilty Backfires

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t hurt my feelings so.”

“When you do that you make me want to cry, I feel so sad and ashamed of you…”

“You weren’t careful and now my favorite vase is broken.”

Guilt. It’s a feeling some parents’ inflict on their children almost without thinking. It manages children’s behavior by making them feel bad about themselves. It relies on hurt feelings and a certain amount of sulkiness from a parent. It’s a real downer.

And new research says guilt has lingering effects that may actually backfire.

According to researchers, guilt-inducing parenting techniques cause children distress that affects them even into the next day. Researchers found that parents’ use of guilt varies according to kids’ behavior. The day following a day when guilt was used heavily is a day when children show high levels of distress and anger. Guilt-tripping has the effect of making children’s behavior worse.

We all know how icky feeling guilty is. We know from our own experience that being handed a guilt-trip seems unfair. It makes us feel helpless and frustrated. Our children feel exactly the same way. Little wonder feeling guilty makes children act badly.

Parents who use guilt as a tool use it more when they themselves are under a lot of stress or are particularly tired. These may be times when they are feeling vulnerable and put-upon. They may be more likely to view children’s behavior as intentionally hurtful to them, rather than just ordinary kid-stuff.

So here’s the take-home message this study sends us: avoid using guilt as a way to manage children’s behavior. Be especially careful about inflicting guilt on those days when you feel stressed out. And if you do let slip a guilt-inducing statement…

“You’re breaking my heart”

… be sure to apologize and smooth things over. If you don’t, your child could carry her guilt around all night and into the next day… and her bad behavior then will be something you and your guilt-tripping caused.

Talk about feeling guilty!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.