Could Using Guilt on Your Children Backfire?

It’s an age-old technique: If you want your children to behave, you lay on the guilt and shame. While guilt can be one way to help children learn appropriate behaviors, it’s not always the best method of teaching. In some cases, guilt crosses the line when we start using it to control behavior and make children feel bad, instead of communicating openly and honestly.

There is a use for developing a conscience. We want our children to differentiate between hitting someone else and helping them. It’s hard to find that line, and sometimes I find my own efforts falling short. There are times when I fall into the trap of using guilt when another method of interaction would work better with my son — and help our relationship.

Using Guilt Could Be an Expression of Anger

A lot of the time when I find myself starting in on a guilt trip, it’s because I feel frustrated by something. Here’s what Psychology Today has to say about understanding the underlying motivations for using guilt on others:

First, we must be aware that our guilt trips are secret expressions of anger.

Next, we must realize that anger isn’t our emotional bottom line. Simply put, anger is a smokescreen that conceals the more vulnerable feelings of hurt, fear and sadness. It’s common for humans to bury these vulnerable feelings and convert them into anger.

Much of the time, I feel frustrated because I think my son should be doing something that he’s not doing. This could be cleaning his room, doing other chores, or putting down the video game for an hour or two. A lot of the time, this frustration comes from a place where I feel like I’m doing so much and I need help. Rather than just asking for that help, I start a frustration-fueled guilt trip.

Lately, though, I’ve been reframing things. Instead of saying things like, “I work hard so that you have all these cool toys and can participate in fun activities, and you don’t appreciate me and do nothing,” I take a step back.

Really, my son is a good kid. He keeps his room mostly clean. He needs reminders a lot of the time, but part of that is due to the fact that he’s 13 years old. But I forget that sometimes. And there are times when my frustration isn’t so much at him as it is I’ve had a bad day, or something else is bothering me.

Now, I take a step back. If I’m frustrated or sad because of work or relationships or general life, I give my son a hug when he gets home, and I retreat to my room so I can work through my emotions without my son being collateral damage. If there’s something I need him to do, I’m more straightforward about it now.

Last week, I was shoveling the driveway when he came home from school. He walked in the house to go to the bathroom and get a snack. I felt like he was taking forever and I wanted help with the driveway. At first, I thought I was going to be mad. But then I realized I hadn’t told him how much I wanted his help. I stuck my head in the door and said, “Hey, I would really appreciate your help with the driveway.” I said it as an invitation, not as a demand, and without trying to guilt him. He quickly finished and joined me. Later, I thanked him for his help. Yesterday, it snowed again. I was sick, and without being asked, he went out and cleared the driveway on his own.

I thanked him for his help again. Using guilt probably wouldn’t have had such results. He would have resented me if I had approached him with guilt originally. Additionally, children can sense, to some degree, when they are being manipulated. Guilt can eventually cause them to push back even harder. But framing it as an invitation to help changed the whole dynamic. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of disagreements and difficulties in the future. However, as I step back from using guilt, I feel our relationship becoming more positive, and we are both happier.


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