Sending Your Kids On a Guilt Trip Can Cause Lasting Harm, Study Finds

What parent hasn't tried to influence their kids' behavior by making them feel a little guilty about being bad? Now, a new study out of Finland may make parents regret the guilt trips: Kids who were made to feel guilty exhibited "atypically high levels of distress and anger," even a day later.

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A preliminary report from the Academy of Finland found that kids as young as 5 or 6 can tell when their parents are trying to manipulate them by using guilt. Both mothers and fathers used guilt to try to change their children's behavior, but the effect was more severe when dads did it.

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For the study, which is slated to be published later this year in the Journal of Family Psychology, Kaisa Aunola and her team from University of Jyväskylä, Finland, focused on about 150 first graders, their parents, and their teachers. The participants daily interactions were tracked via diary entries, and the level of guilt-inducing tactics parents employed changed from day to day.

"When parents used higher levels of guilt-inducing parenting on certain days, this was evident as atypically high levels of distress and anger among children still on the next day," the researchers noted.

But what, exactly, is guilt-inducing parenting? According to the researchers, it's when "a parent tries to impact on the child’s behavior using psychological means rather than direct limit setting."

"For example, the parent may remind the child how much he or she makes an effort for the child or show how ashamed she/he is because of the child’s behavior," the researchers explained. So, forcing your child to hold a sign in public, pretending to be sad in order to manipulate your child into showing affection, or making your kids do what you want by recounting how long you were in labor with them are all examples of guilt-inducing parenting.

At the same time, guilt is a necessary teaching tool -- studies show that it helps kids follow societal rules and avoid hurting others. (In other words, it helps them develop a conscience).

"Parents are so afraid to shame their children that they bypass opportunities to teach them responsibility," says Dr. Wendy Mogel author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. "Loving, devoted, intelligent, good-intentioned parents are creating entitled, anxious children who often like to pass the buck."

But very young children often can't differentiate between a parent criticizing their actions and themselves.

“Most young children really don’t hear the distinction between ‘Johnny, you did a bad thing’ versus ‘Johnny, you’re a bad boy'," Dr. June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University, told the New York Times. "They hear ‘bad kid'."

Parents were more likely to use guilt as a weapon when they were tired or upset, the study found, adding that "the role of the father was especially important" -- possibly because dads are used to make the threat more dire. Ending a tirade with "Just wait until your dad gets home!" may quell a kid temporarily, but the long-term effect isn't always positive.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to knowing how much guilt is good for a child, but focusing on how to fix the problem -- rather than making a child feel guilty about the problem -- may be a better long-term solution.

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