Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Grounding Guilt

Guilt-laden parenting tactics: What parent hasn’t resorted to them at some point, perhaps only out of desperation?  What impact does guilt-inducing parenting tactics have on children?  And why do we, who love our children so deeply, use them at times?

The job of being a parent is not straightforward.  It is not as though the doctor hands a list of duties and expectations to you as you leave the hospital with your newborn baby.  Instead, there are numerous obvious and implied responsibilities and plenty of more obtuse obligations that you must simply figure out.  Parenting earns the label as the “hardest job in the world” because it is so deeply personal and inextricably linked with your inherent self-worth and significance in life.

When your children does not do as you please, how does that make you feel?  Perhaps you feel differently when you are at the park and your child snatches a toy from your friend’s child, than when you are in the privacy of your own home and the toy is being snatched from another sibling.  Do you feel that your child’s behavior reflects upon your own reputation?  Do you feel that the quality of your work as a parent is judged upon what your child does and who your child becomes?

When being honest, most parents will answer “yes”to the above questions.  If this in fact how most parents feel, then the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the article (“Why do we use guilt-laden parenting tactics?”) is obvious.  We possess a monumental love for our children, but at times we permit parental and adult stressors and responsibilities to overlap with our love and aspirations for our children.  It is natural and understandable to, at times, resort to guilt-inducing parenting tactics, but it can have a negative effect on children.

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology (see citation at end of article) points to guilt-laden threats as a cause of anxiety in children.  Children whose parents use guilt-inducing language to cajole them to do as the parent bids are more likely to experience anxiety and anger following the exchange and, possibly, until the following day.

What is meant by guilt-laden parenting?  Guilt-inducing parenting happens whenever a parent connects more responsibility to a child’s actions than a child is ready to bear.  For example, a guilt-inducing parent may explode at a two-year old for spilling milk.  He may huff and puff while cleaning up the milk up, mumbling about how tired and annoyed he feels. Instead of bearing the annoyance of the spilled milk in quiet, he passes that burden to the child, in essence communicating to the child that he/she is unworthy of the parent’s efforts and love and is the direct source of the parent’s troubles.  Distressed and exhausted parents are most likely to use guilt-laden parenting tactics, according to the above mentioned article.  What parent hasn’t hit that point of pure exhaustion, or even desperation, and resorted to a comment or suggestion that blames the child for his or her distress?

Chances are if you have made a mistake and passed guilt onto your child for your own exhaustion here or there, and you apologized, then you have nothing to worry about, but if you are consistently using guilt-inducing parenting tactics to manipulate obedience then steps need to be taken to avoid psychological harm to the child.  The Intelligent Nest is a guilt-free nest.  Parenting is hardwork, so don’t be too hard on yourself, try a couple of the suggestions below instead:

1) Take a break!

If you have had a new baby, suffered a major loss or tragedy or are just in a difficult phase of life, you will need to find more opportunities for a break.  Save up and hire a babysitter for a day or ask a friend to help and then spend a day relaxing.  Don’t do errands or make appointments, just treat yourself to a couple of activities that you find relaxing.  There is no shame in saying, “I’ve had it and I need a break.”

2) Seek a Listening Ear

Even if you don’t have time or money to go talk to a psychologist about the burdens you are carrying at this phase in life, find a friend with a listening ear to help share your baggage.  You’ll be less likely to unload the weight of your worries on your child if you have a healthy outlet.  If there is no one around to help, you can always journal and let your pen be your confidant.

3) Give Yourself a “Time Out”

I’ll be the first to admit that it is hard to hold your temper when parenting young children.   I, from time to time, have to take a “mommy time-out”. Be honest with yourself about your feelings and experiences.  If you feel overwhelmed, then take time on your own to cool off, meditate, pray or check your email- anything to help you feel grounded.  Even two minutes of “time-out” can help an exhausted parent regain their footing and patience.

4) State the Obvious

When emotions and anger flares, it can be hard to remember the truth about what is actually going on around you.  If your child is spilling his milk in the midst of you receiving a negative phone call, it is more likely that your child will experience the brunt of your frustrations about the angry phone call.  Instead of passing that guilt/blame to your child, silently, or out loud, state your obvious observations.  For example: “My child is only two”; “I feel angry about the bad phone call and not about the spilled milk”; “Milk can be cleaned up”; “All kids spill milk from time to time”, etc…

5)  Focus on what is important

Guilt-laden parenting tactics focus more on the parenting experience than on the child’s behavior.  For example, a guilt inducing parent might say: “I am trying so hard and I do so much for you”; “Don’t you want to make Mommy/Daddy happy?”; “I bought that for you instead of buying x for myself”, etc…  Instead of talking about how you are feeling taxed, state your behavior expectations calmly to the child and keep your feelings and experiences out of it.

To sum up, a parent’s personal headaches are not a young child’s responsibility.  As hard as it may be, do your best to separate your own burdens from your child’s shortcomings.  Also, be gentle with yourself.  Parenting is not easy.  It is a job that requires continual personal growth to succeed.  As your child grows and learns, you will as well in many ways.

* * *

Aunola, K., Tolvanen, A., Viljaranta, J. & Nurmi, J.-E.  Psychological control in daily parent-child interactions increases children’s negative emotionsJournal of Family Psychology, 2013 (in press)

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