Healthy Living

Guilt Parenting Causes Your Children Lasting Distress

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Guilt parenting can cause children distress that lasts at least until the next day. Youtube/The Fresh Prince of Be

Guilt parenting- how do you know when you're using it on your children too much? A study from Finland finds that guilt parenting used in daily interactions gives children distress that is still observable the next day.

Guilt parenting involves the use of psychological means to shape a child's behavior instead of setting specific limits. A guilting parent might tell a child how ashamed he or she is by the child's bad behavior, or constantly remind the child how hard he or she works to provide for the family. As one might imagine, guilt parenting is often used by parents who are distressed, exhausted, or exasperated.

The study, led by Professor Kaisa Aunola and researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, observed the interactions of about 150 primary school children in the first grade with their parents and teachers, every day for a prolonged period of time.

The researchers collected reports from parents and teachers about their interactions with the children, and the first-graders kept diaries recording their feelings while at school.

The reports showed that participating parents varied their use of guilt-induced parenting from one day to another. On the days when parents used higher levels of guilt parenting tactics, children displayed atypically higher levels of anger and distress the following day.

Both the mothers and fathers increased their children's daily distress with guilt parenting, the father's role in causing that distress was especially important.

So how can a parent with guilting tendencies avoid causing their child distress, but still shape their behavior effectively?

Dr. June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University, offered some advice in the New York Times. Tangney made a distinction between shame, the unhealthy feeling that you're a bad person because of bad behavior, and guilt, negative feelings based on past behavior that can be productive.

"Most young children really don't hear the distinction between 'Johnny, you did a bad thing' versus 'Johnny, you're a bad boy.' They hear 'bad kid.' I think a more active, directive approach is needed."

Tangney recommended focusing on how to make up for bad behavior instead of fixating on the negative behavior itself.

"Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right. Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor. Parents can teach and support them to say 'I'm sorry' and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before."

John Tierney of the New York Times suggests that guilt parenting may be positive when used effectively. According to discussions with several child psychology researchers, toddlers who display higher guilt go on to have fewer behavioral problems, like hitting other children, breaking rules, and ignoring distress in others, when they get older.

The paper is currently in press, to be published alter this year in the Journal of Family Psychology.

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