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When Kids Are Guilty Parents Suffer - Learn to Stop the Cycle

Raising kids is one of the most difficult tasks in one's life. And unlike work or hobbies, you're often given very little preparation, especially when it comes to psychological well-being and communicative strategies. As a result, we often resort to patterns and techniques we've observed around us. And these old-school strategies are not always right. Some are even harmful. Using guilt to raise children is one of them.

Dear Parents, guilt-tripping your kids can seriously harm your relationship. Even if you can convince your children to follow your rules in letter, guilting will inadvertently break your spiritual connection. 


What are the signs of guilt-tripping?

Guilt Tripping annoyed man and woman

In simple terms, guilt-tripping is a form of manipulation. It aims to convince someone or compel them to do something through shaming or blaming. 

This is not to be confused with guilt in general, as feeling guilt and owning up to one’s mistakes is an important part of the inner dialogue that can make you a more empathetic and kinder person. It is when you actively fabricate guilt and use it to “teach someone a lesson” in order to achieve your goals that it becomes guilt-tripping.

Even though guilting can exist in any relationship, we focus on parental guilt-tripping in this specific article. That being said, many of the lessons listed here can be applied to other relationships too.

Guilt Tripping woman disciplining a girl

Parents convincing their children to do as they’re told through guilt is sadly common. As with any manipulation, this practice takes advantage of the child’s trust and desire to please a parent. Over time, this causes a ripple effect that devolves well into the child’s adulthood and makes both parents and kids feel ignored and alienated.

Examples of guilt-tripping:

  • You're leaving already?
  • I don’t ask much, but please call me daily.
  • Your sister calls me all the time. (“...why can’t you?” is implied)
  • I gave up my career to raise you.
  • I feel so lonely when you don’t visit.
  • You don’t want to visit your mother?
  • I did everything for you, and you can’t even call me?
  • Mary’s son makes her coffee every morning. (“...and you don’t” is implied) 
  • We paid for your education and you thank us by barely visiting once a year?

Related article: 11 Types of Manipulators We Meet Every Day

Why do parents guilt trip their children?

Parents will often explain to themselves that guilt-tripping a child about a seemingly minor mistake is going to teach them a lesson. In reality, guilt is rarely purposefully inflicted for the sake of gaining perspective. Instead, it’s often done to assert control, or even worse - it’s unconscious.
Guilt Tripping older woman and young girl

Guilt-tripping can be passed down from generation to generation. Parents who guilt their kids have often sustained a similar experience as a kid. Sometimes, they may not fully realize they are doing it altogether.

At other times, parents who use guilt-tripping may even believe that it’s an effective parenting tactic, so they resort to it when they’re out of other options. "A parent who feels helpless to control a child’s behavior by any other means will sometimes use guilt as an attempt to bring about the desired behavior or stop unwanted behavior," said Kaufman Rees, a professional clinical counselor, to Verywell Family.

When a child grows up, parents may use guilt for fears of growing apart and becoming less relevant in the child's life. Guilt-tripping may come from a place of love and the search for connection; not that it justifies the behavior or makes it any less painful for the child.

What does guilt-tripping do to the child?

Guilt often gives immediate results, but make no mistake, the long-term effects on the child’s emotions are utterly destructive.
Guilt Tripping upset boy being disciplined

When guilt-tripping begins in childhood, it can lead to low self-esteem. That’s because a child cannot distinguish between themselves and their actions. Studies show that when you tell a child that they have done a "bad thing," they draw the conclusion that THEY are bad. If this cycle is repeated over and over, the child grows up constantly feeling ashamed and guilty. Such people constantly doubt their own actions and have low self-esteem.

In adulthood, guilt-tripping may seem to yield a positive effect - at the surface. The child, who grew up to be a responsible adult, may start calling and visiting more often. But the price of manipulating someone into contact lies in emotional absence. Instead of feeling eager to stay in touch, every contact becomes a reminder of guilt.

Guilt Tripping senior man on the phone

As a result, the child perceives every visit and every call as an emotionally taxing chore. This spills out and becomes apparent by such behavior as:

  • Emotional disconnectedness
  • Seeking more and more privacy
  • Setting boundaries
  • Lashing out.

While it may increase physical presence, guilt cannot garner emotional connection and trust. Ultimately, it leads to complete disconnection.

Related article: The Tell-Tale Signs of Passive-Aggressive Communication

How to stop using guilt against a child

Guilt Tripping mother consoling a child

The good news is - the damage caused by guilt-tripping can be reversed. The process is gradual, as it involves changing your communication patterns. It takes time and work from both sides, especially in the case of adult children. Here are some key tips to consider:

  • Acknowledge your past use of guilt.
  • Hear out your child - Let them reflect on how your use of guilt affected them.
  • Learn to communicate your needs - Guilt-tripping can stem from the difficulty of communicating. Instead of guilting the child with a chore or more frequent phone calls, why not suggest the same in a positive way, e.g. How about having a weekly call?
  • Teach instead of blaming - Treat a mishap at school as an opportunity to learn something and not a chance to shame a child.
  • Learn to compromise - Instead of guilting the child for not visiting, pick up the phone and make the call.
  • Identify vicious cycles in communication - If you see your child shutting down, take a step back and ask what’s wrong.
  • Respect boundaries - If a child refuses, let it be.
  • Avoid acting from anger - Guilting can stem from a feeling of anger. If that happens to you, take a step back before you react.
  • Find ways to connect - Nourish your relationship through mutual interests and not manipulation.
  • Accept apologies - When a child tries to make amends, accept and encourage this behavior. Apologies will bring relief and resolution.

References: Moms, Verywell Family, Huffpost, Psychology Today

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