Using Guilt to Control Your Children

I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve heard using guilt to control their child’s behavior, and I often wonder if they think that this is an effective parenting technique.  After all, their parents did it, and if your family was religious, contrition was part of everyday life.  I would often joke about my own upbringing in the Catholic Church, whose teachings mainly consisted of fear and guilt.  Luckily, my parents didn’t necessarily believe in those practices, being exposed to those concepts themselves during their own childhoods.

I have even seen ADULT children being manipulated by their elderly parents through guilt.  “What?  You can only stay for an hour?  But you only stayed 3 hours last week!  You never call me and no one ever visits me.”  I find it truly amazing that a grown man can be transformed into a child again, compliments of guilt.  It is a POWERFUL emotion that brings on almost instant distress .  Therefore, you simply do what the deliverer of guilt wants to avoid these unpleasant feelings.

According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., “guilt trips are a clear form of psychological manipulation and coercion”.  While those who suffered through guilt during their upbringing may blow it off as a necessary part of growing up, Dr. Winch states that this type of communication is not as harmless as we may think.  He further mentions that those “who use guilt trips are usually entirely focused on getting the result they want and entirely blind to the damage their methods can cause.”

Over the long term, these toxic interpersonal schemes of control are likely to lead to emotional distance and can put a strain on relationships.  In other words, guilt is never a good way to get someone to do what you want them to do.  Basically, if you want to have a good relationship with your kiddos, you shouldn’t be prodding them to do or not do something with the guilt tool.  If you can’t state your needs or requests in an effective manner, that’s your problem.  Figure out another way to get them on board with your plans.

Of course guilt has its place in our society.  I mean, all of us want Jr. to fit into society, and throwing Matchbox cars at another child’s head is unacceptable.  Clearly, guilt can help them develop a conscience and change behavior in a positive way.  Unfortunately, telling them that grandma won’t love them anymore if they don’t sing, “I’m a Little Teapot” for her is probably not the best way to use guilt.

I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t even pretend to know the specific neurological or emotional impact that guilt has on those who experienced it while growing up.  Like most of us, I’m just observing, and learning from the experiences of others.  I can say that when guilt is used inappropriately, the impact can be life long.  Eventually, those that you bullied with guilt won’t want to have anything to do with you, and they’ll be able to drive by then…far, far, away.

To read the article by Dr. Winch, please click this link.  The Psychology and Management of Guilt Trips  

To visit his website, please click this link.  Guy Winch, Ph.D.

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Filed under: Parenting

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