Why Using Guilt Trips Is an Ineffective Parenting Strategy

frustrated mom and upset teen on laptop

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It's no secret that communicating with and disciplining kids is hard. In fact, it can be so overwhelming at times that parents can feel like they are at their wit's end and try just about anything to get their kids to comply with their requests. Unfortunately, though, not all methods that they resort to are effective parenting strategies.

In fact, using guilt or a guilt trip is one of the least effective parenting strategies there is. Even though this tactic may work in the short term, and your child may do what you want, guilt-tripping kids can have lasting consequences like low self-esteem if you resort to it often enough.

Here's what you need to know about guilt trips, why they are ineffective parenting strategies, and what you can do instead.

What Is Guilt Tripping?

Using guilt or guilt-tripping is a form of manipulation. It's a way of shaming or blaming a child in order to convince them to do something or to comply with a request.

It's important to note that feeling guilty is not always the issue—it's how the child comes to feel guilty that is the problem. For instance, it's normal for a child to feel guilty when they have done something wrong like cheating on a test or stealing a sibling's belongings. This type of guilt helps kids learn right from wrong and will lead them to become healthy and empathetic if they are taught how to take responsibility and make amends for bad behavior.

Feelings of guilt become an issue when the person inflicting the guilt trip is trying to make the child feel guilty or ashamed in order to get something from them. For instance, a parent that wants their teen to watch their younger siblings so they can go out might guilt them about how much time they spend at their activities, accuse them of not helping out around the house, and lament about how they never consider what the parent might need.

A healthier way to handle that situation would be for the parent to communicate their expectations of the teen and guide them on how to prioritize things in their life and make time for their family obligations. When parents focus on having a healthy dialogue with their kids and leave guilt out of the equation, they can communicate their wants or expectations without shaming or blaming their child in the process.

Why Parents Might Resort to Guilt Trips

There are many different reasons why a parent might engage in guilt trips with their kids. The first of which, is that they may not even realize they are doing it. Or, it may have been something they experienced as a kid and they fall into those same practices now that they are an adult, says Lorie Kaufman Rees, MA, MFCS, PCC, a professional clinical counselor and life coach with Kaufman Rees Resources.

"[But] using guilt as a parenting strategy takes advantage of a child’s desire to please," says Kaufman Rees. "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."

Meanwhile, other parents engage in guilt because they think it will work, especially after they have tried everything else, says Rosenna Hickman, a licensed professional counselor who recently retired from private practice.

Consequences of Guilt Tripping

There are a number of negative consequences that come from experiencing guilt trips as a child. Aside from feeling shame or like they don't measure up, kids also can struggle with low self-esteem. They also may be more vulnerable to peer pressure and more likely to engage in unhealthy friendships and dating relationships.

Lorie Kaufman Rees, MA, MFCS, PCC

Guilt trips teach our kids to search for outward validation rather than internal validation, It teaches them to look to the responses of others to determine whether they—and their actions—are good or bad.

— Lorie Kaufman Rees, MA, MFCS, PCC

This may seem like a good thing with a 5-year-old, but it’s not with a 15-year-old dealing with peer pressure and attempting to determine who they are and who they want to be, Kaufman Rees says.

Additionally, guilt trips are not effective parenting strategies because a child may not truly understand what they have done wrong, especially if it hasn't been clearly communicated, says Kaufman Rees. Consequently, they are bound to repeat the behavior.

"Children and teens respond to guilt in one of two ways: they either carry around an inescapable feeling of shame which drives a desperate need to please people or they adopt a—'you think I’m bad? Well, I’ll show you!' type of attitude," she explains. "Neither are desirable parenting outcomes. We want our children to become confident and competent contributors to society. Guilt cannot and will not ever accomplish this."

When we motivate our kids by causing them to feel shame when they’ve disappointed us, we’re not really motivating them, she adds. "We’re discouraging them and we’re setting them up to look to others for approval and validation for the rest of their lives."

What's more, frequent guilt trips make kids more prone to take responsibility for things that are not theirs to own.

"Children are vulnerable to taking criticisms personally and internalizing them," she says. "[Ultimately], this becomes a mantle of shame ending in low self-esteem."

What You Can Do Instead

The first step in breaking the guilt trip habit is to work toward establishing habits of good communication with your children, says Kaufman Rees.

"Be age-appropriately honest with them and speak to them respectfully," she says. "When discussing a problematic behavior, describe the behavior specifically, explain how the behavior affected others, describe the desired behavior, and outline the consequences should they choose the undesirable behavior again. "

Additionally, Kaufman Rees recommends determining where your desire to use guilt is coming from. She says many times parents will use guilt when they feel their child’s behavior has reflected poorly on them as parents. Parents need to be able to step back and recognize what the child is and isn’t actually responsible for, she says.

"Getting suspended? The child is responsible," Kaufman Rees explains. "The feeling of embarrassment we feel as a result? That’s our own doing. We cannot place that on our children—instead, we need to work that out on our own."

You also should try not to be too hard on yourself as a parent, says Hickman. While it's important to ensure that you are communicating in a healthy way with your child, you also need to recognize that you are not perfect.

"It's important to have healthy responses to your children—that's how they feel loved and learn who they are. It also allows them to learn from their mistakes," she says. "Parents will make mistakes, too, and that's OK. [The key] is that we turn to our children, take responsibility for our mistakes, and ask for forgiveness. That is the best example we can make and prevent guilt trips and self-esteem issues in the process."

A Word From Verywell

Many times, parents engage in guilt-tripping without even realizing they are doing it. If you're feeling frustrated with your parenting strategies or you're concerned that you're using guilt to modify your children's behaviors, you may want to look into parent classes or talk with a counselor about your concerns. These avenues can help you identify what you do well and where you need to improve. And, with a little hard work on your end, you will be well on your way to becoming the type of parent you want to be.

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