We’ve all been on the receiving end of a guilt trip — from parents, other family members, teachers, you name it. But even if the emotion does lead to changed behavior, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing, especially for kids.
“Guilt may work in the moment to stop a behavior, but the long-term effects on a child’s emotions is not helpful or healthy,” said parenting educator Laura Linn Knight. “Parents can use their own experience of how guilt and shame have had a negative impact in their life as a reminder to leave guilt out of their conversations with their children.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely bad thing either. As kids develop empathy and compassion, they also start to experience feelings of guilt when their actions have a negative impact on others or otherwise violate their values.
“Guilt is not always bad ― especially if it comes from inside, not from outside based on something a parent said,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “Kids are building their internal guiding principles in real time — it’s important to not lose sight of that.”
Parents should be mindful of their role in this. Even if you’re not seeking to guilt-trip your children, there are other common behaviors and comments that make kids feel guilty. Speaking to HuffPost, experts broke down some parenting approaches that instill guilt and should be avoided.
Piling On When They Make Mistakes
“It’s important to separate the kid from the action,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Your kid, whom you love, did something that frustrates you. That’s all. When you put the kid and the action together, this can cause guilt.”
She advised against saying things like “You’re so careless!” when your kid forgets to turn in their homework or “You’re so sloppy!” when they make a mess.
“Parents often do this without realizing it in the heat of the moment because they are tired and frustrated,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Better to take a deep breath and just describe the action and any potential consequences: ‘You forgot to turn in your homework. You worked hard on that. What happened?’ Or ‘I asked you to clean up your art supplies, and they are all over the floor still. Now we need to clean up instead of watching a show before bed.’”
Rather than making emotionally charged, judgmental comments, get your kids into problem-solving mode. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, not shaming.
“If a young child tears a library book and the parent responds angrily with ‘Look what you’ve done! You’ve ruined it! They’ll never let you take any more books out!’ the child may well feel overwhelmed by their parent’s anger, and could internalize that into feeling like they’re a bad kid and they can never fix what they’ve done,” said Kristene Geering, the director of education at Parent Lab, a parenting education resource. “Now compare that with responding: ‘Oh dear, the page is torn, and this book doesn’t belong to you. How do you think we can fix it?’”
The second option still acknowledges the mistake and impact on others but encourages kids to come up with a solution.
“Kids may feel discomfort when they break something that matters to a family member,” echoed Deborah Farmer Kris, a parent educator. “That sense of remorse or guilt can prompt them to come tell us what happened and to make amends. That’s worth celebrating, because it takes courage to say you are sorry and figure out how to move forward.”
Take on the role of coaching and teaching, not shaming and blaming. Kris recommended helping kids connect the dots between their actions and other people’s emotions by saying things like: “When you call your little brother names, it hurts his feelings. I know you get frustrated with him, so let’s brainstorm other ways to handle that feeling.”
Letting Them Feel Responsible For Your Bad Mood
“Kids are by nature self-centered because it’s developmentally appropriate for them to be,” Sinclair-McBride noted. “This means they can take on guilt regarding things for which they actually aren’t responsible. Younger kids are also pretty concrete, so they can interpret guilt and feeling bad about their actions as evidence that they are bad — ‘I did a bad thing, so I’m bad.’”
Children are also very attuned to their caregivers’ moods and behavior, so they may become upset and feel guilty when they notice a parent is upset.
“They will usually believe they are the cause of the parental distress and have a heightened and amplified sense of it,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “You can’t avoid the feelings, but you can acknowledge them and process them with your kids.”
He recommended giving hugs and other shows of affection to reassure younger children that they are loved. Make it clear to older kids that your distress has nothing to do with them, but don’t go into specifics. Emphasize that you recognized your bad feelings and processed them, and try to avoid letting your frustrations impact future interactions with your child.
“On occasion we lash out, are unfair and take things out on them, even for a minor infraction or for no infraction at all,” said Dr. Gene Beresin, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Examples include a child interrupting and a parent, under stress from work or other pressures, inappropriately blows up at the child.”
“Many a parent has gotten frustrated in traffic when driving to a variety of after-school youth activities,” added Craig Knippenberg, a therapist and the author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
“That stress might come out in a statement of frustration about the activity and leaves your child feeling guilty about their activity,” Knippenberg said.
He recalled a time in his childhood when he suggested a family outing to a Daniel Boone museum. On the long drive home, some tar from a freshly paved road got on his dad’s Thunderbird.
“He was very upset and angry and made a side comment about this trip that we were on,” Knippenberg said. “In the back, I was in tears and overwhelmed with guilt that I had caused this mishap. ‘If only I hadn’t made the suggestion,’ I remembered thinking.”
Fighting In Front Of Your Kids
Because children are naturally egocentric, they may believe they’re to blame for parental disagreements. So it’s best to avoid blowing up in front of your kids.
“Your child might express a desire to play youth league football,” Knippenberg said. “Later in the evening, the parents might be discussing this desire and things get heated up when you realize you have two very different views on the subject. Kids don’t like when parents argue, so when they hear it, they might go down the path of ‘This is my fault — if only I hadn’t brought up playing football.’”
In the process of planning a child’s birthday party, parents may notice the costs have exceeded the budget and get upset with each other, leading the child to think they caused the problem because it was their party.
“You have to remember that children aren’t able to understand the complexities of adult relationships and adult emotions,” Knippenberg said. “Rather than understanding that their parents are stressed and maybe have a hard time communicating, they just go right to themselves as the cause for the distress and, subsequently, feel guilty.”
He advised getting on the same page before discussing these sorts of situations in front of or with your child. Affirm their desires and calmly explain how your views might differ.
Calling Them ‘Good’ Or ‘Bad’
“Some children will internalize guilt and feel that their guilt makes them a ‘bad kid,’” Knight said. “This feeling of unworthiness can develop over time into shame if the child is not supported in working through their feelings.”
She advised parents to be mindful of the words they use when children are behaving in a way they like or don’t like.
“Using the language of ‘bad boy/girl’ or ‘good boy/girl’ with your child can unintentionally create pathways in a child’s brain where they are continually assessing themselves as good or bad,” Knight said. “When a child is in the habit of thinking of themselves as good or bad, it can lead to higher feelings of guilt, perfectionism and create unhealthy coping strategies that make the child want to stay in the ‘good’ role (which we know is hard to do and doesn’t honor the fallibility that all us humans have).”
On the flip side, when a child feels labeled as “bad,” they may internalize this notion and misbehave accordingly. To dispel these narratives, parents can try to use clear language.
“For example, if your child yells at you, instead of saying, ‘You’re a bad kid for yelling at me!’ try saying: ‘I love and care about you. However, the behavior of yelling is not OK,’” said Knight.
“Then, when your child has calmed down, you can talk about how all humans make mistakes and we all have things we are working on. Help your child learn new behaviors by focusing on solutions.”
Not Providing The Opportunity To Make Amends
When kids act out or mess up, it’s essential that they have the opportunity to make amends. Parents should try to process their feelings of hurt or frustration and be open to their child’s apology.
“If the parent is available, responsive and accepts reparations from the child (kisses and hugs, a present the next day, a drawing) without resentment, the guilt is resolved,” Beresin said. “If, on the other hand, the parent reacts to the child’s anger with abandonment or retaliation, then it fuels the anxiety and guilt, and prevents resolution.”
Older kids and teens also need to have the opportunity to make reparations and resolve their guilt when they break the rules.
“The parent may punish the teen, and this may be important, but most importantly the parent needs to be emotionally available for an apology, making amends and accepting them,” Beresin said. “It is also important to have conversations about what went wrong, why the teen broke a rule, got themselves in trouble, and have the opportunity, again with the parent available to receive an apology and reparations, to help the teen learn right from wrong.”
He shared the story of a time he and his wife went away for a weekend, and their teenage daughter threw a wild party that resulted in a broken window.
“For the next week, she was grounded from social events, though could attend school and sport,” he recalled. “During that period, she was the ideal teen — taking out the garbage, asking to cook meals, feeding the dogs and more. All were reparations for her making a bad choice. We had many conversations about responsibility, trust and rational decision-making.”
Being receptive to her apology gave his daughter the opportunity to make amends and resolve her guilt, which ultimately strengthened their relationship. She learned the value of taking responsibility for her transgressions and developed greater empathy and awareness of her behavior’s impact on others.
Issuing Overly Harsh Punishments
“Punishments must fit the crime,” Beresin emphasized. “If your child violates a rule or acts in an aggressive, hostile or insulting matter, a timeout or punishment may be in order. But consider how serious the transgression was and consider a punishment that is consistent with the violation.”
He advised also using that punishment time to talk about what happened and show openness to resolving the situation and making amends.
“Excessive punishments, and especially ones that are way out of order given the situation, are unnecessary and experienced as aggression rather than justice in action, and often are more likely to result in longer-lasting guilt as well as unreasonableness,” Beresin said.
Avoiding Conversations About Feelings
“Have frequent conversations about emotions and behavior,” Beresin recommended. “The more we ‘debrief’ after an incident, the more we are able to process what happened. Ask open-ended questions, like ‘What did I just do, and how did it make you feel?’ or ‘How does it make you feel when I yell like that?’”
Rather than brush past or push away the topic of difficult feelings, be sure to listen to your child and validate their emotions.
“Many children experience guilt in their body. And because they may not be able to articulate their feelings of guilt, their emotions may be processed as a stomachache, hurting head or an overall icky feeling in the body,” Knight noted.
Encourage your child to describe those feelings of guilt and how the other person might be feeling as well. Talk about what went wrong and how they can make it better.
“Even in calm situations when no one has done any wrong, talk about concern for others, empathy, acts of kindness and the kinds of warm, caring behavior we all want to achieve,” Beresin said. “Remember that all kids want approval, and knowing what you value and hope for are good ways for them to know to do the right things.”
Acknowledge when your child demonstrates caring behavior and discuss how great it feels to treat others with kindness.
Projecting Your Goals Onto Them
It’s not uncommon for parents to sign their children up for activities they wish they’d had the opportunity to excel at during their own childhoods. Whether it’s cello lessons or ice hockey practice, take the time to assess whether your child actually wants to engage in this activity and if it’s enhancing their life.
Avoid getting too emotionally invested and carried away with your dreams and goals for their success. Otherwise, you may make your child feel like they’re doing something terribly wrong for gravitating toward a different path.
“A common trap is when parents go beyond what they really want to be doing for their child,” Knippenberg said. “Then, when your child has a very normal feeling of not wanting to go to practice, it’s easy to start bringing up how ungrateful they are for all you are doing.”
These sorts of comments aren’t a recipe for long-term success, either.
“Guilt may get something done, but it won’t help intrinsically motivate your kid,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Do you want your kids to obey you simply because they don’t want to hear your mouth and feel guilty, or because you want them to take pride in achieving their goals and being a positive member of your household? The second choice is going to get them further in life. It takes more patience as a parent but is more rewarding.”
Speaking Pointedly About Other People’s Kids
Be mindful of the way you talk about other children. Whether or not that’s the intention, parents who constantly bring up a peer’s kids are setting their own children up to feel compared and inadequate.
“When you say things like ‘My friend Jane’s kids make her breakfast in bed every Sunday’ and ‘Becky’s daughter Susie won the chess championship at her school,’ the ending of ‘And you don’t/didn’t’ is implied,” said Susan G. Groner, the author of “Parenting with Sanity & Joy” and founder of The Parenting Mentor, which provides coaching services.
“Instead, refrain from sharing this,” she added. “Think hard what your real reason is for sharing, and chances are it may be to compare.”
Not Apologizing For Or Owning Up To Your Own Mistakes
“Always apologize and make amends if you are out of line,” Beresin advised. “For example, if we yell at a child for being loud due to playing and being excited, we need to be aware that they are just kids, and our yelling at them is experienced as disapproval and instilling guilt.”
In this situation, he suggested saying something like “Hey, we both should use our indoor voices” and then picking the child up and giving them a big hug.
If you feel like you went too far in making your child feel bad about something, take the time to apologize. Parents sometimes fear that apologizing to their kids undermines their sense of authority, but it actually sows respect and models courage and accountability.
Using Emotional Coercion
“As little ones, the greatest joy for a child is to see their caregivers happy,” said therapist Margaret Ward-Martin. “All they want to do is to please them and so they will — at the cost, sometimes, of what they want, thus giving rise to the disease of people-pleasing. Children feel bad if they feel they have let the grown-ups in their lives down; this is guilt.”
Ward-Martin shared some phrases that induce guilt in children, like “I don’t ask much but please spend the holidays at home” or “I gave up my carer to be a stay-at-home parent to you.” Comments like “I love it when you smile” or “I know I never have to worry about you” can make a younger child feel like they won’t be loved if they feel unhappy or need help. If you’re divorced and say you feel sad when they spend time with their other parent, you put your child in a difficult position as well.
“To break the cycle, look at how you were parented,” Ward-Martin advised. “Did you feel you were good enough? There enough? Earned enough? Please understand that guilt induction is a form of manipulation. You need to know the difference between right and wrong — fair enough — but not to be someone other than who you are to be loved. Guilt in its purest form is a healthy conscience. In its worst, it is coercive control of the child.”