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Joshua Nichols

Marriage Counselor, Family Counselor, Sex Addictions Therapist

Using Guilt as a Weapon in Parenting: A BIG NO-NO!

Fri, 07/20/2012 - 22:13 -- josh

Parenting, in my opinion, is one of the most challenging undertakings this life offers.  It challenges us on so many levels – emotional, mental, physical, and even spiritual.  One parenting challenge that we begin when our children are very young is teaching them to have a basic understanding of right and wrong.  Believe it or not, most people desire that their children grow up to be “good” people.  We want our kids to make good decisions; to be an asset to society and not a burden.  Being able to adequately and accurately decipher right from wrong is a very important trait if we desire to live a productive and fulfilling life.


Teaching our children right from wrong sounds easy, right?  Well, it is a lot easier said than done. One thing that makes it hard is that our children don’t give us a lot of immediate validation that our efforts are impacting them appropriately.  For example, have you ever disciplined your child from something they did wrong and they showed no remorse whatsoever?  Have you grounded your teen or put your toddler in timeout and they cooperate in such a way that communicates that they are in no way bothered by the consequences for their actions? 


When we discipline our children, we often watch intently to see how they react.  When our children feel remorse for their behavior, we get a sense of validation that our efforts as parents are paying off.  However, when they seemingly do not feel guilty through their lack of display of remorse, we, as parents, tend to question the impact of our efforts and decisions. When this happens, then we are often faced with a great temptation to illicit the guilt response that we desire.  For example, a parent might say to their child, “How come you want to hurt Mommy?” or “How come you are trying to make Daddy’s life miserable?” or “Don’t you love us? How come you’d want to hurt us?” These comments illustrate what it means to use guilt as a weapon on your children, which can have detrimental effects if not corrected.


The feeling of guilt was never meant to be used as a weapon.  Guilt is an emotion God gave to us to signify when we are in violation of a belief, moral, value, and/or principle. It is an emotion that happens to us, not an emotion that we are supposed to make happen.  When we try to guilt our children into doing the right thing, we are tampering with their emotional wiring.  One possible result of trying to elicit remorse from our children is this concept I call “misplaced guilt.”  This is when we feel guilty about negative events or situations that have little or nothing to do with us.  For some reason, we just feel like we could have done something different to make things better.  For example: This is the husband that is always quick to apologize for any and all arguments because he assumes he must be completely at fault for the altercation.  This is the wife that feels an intense level of responsibility for her husband having a bad day at work.  This is the child that wonders if he were a better son maybe his parents wouldn’t have divorced.  When guilt is used as a weapon over and over in one’s life, that person tends to take responsibility for all of the bad that happens around him or her. The guilt that is experienced is highly misplaced and therefore not serving the function it was intended to serve.


Another result of parenting through guilt is that children can develop a bad case of the “not good enoughs.”  When parents elicit a guilt response to validate their efforts, then they are relying on the children to let them know they are good parents.  This is NOT our kids’ job! This would be like a young man being hired to work as a flight attendant, but when he shows up for work, he is expected to fly to plane.  The flight attendant can put out great effort in order to get the job done, but he will be hardly adequate at it. As parents, we must work hard to not put our kids in this position.  Our happiness and confidence as a parent is up to us, not our kids!  If a parent has concerns about his or her kids’ behavior and/or reactions to the enforced discipline measures, then s/he should consult someone s/he trusts to get ideas – a spouse, close friend, minister, or counselor.


As you continue with your parenting endeavors, please keep in mind that the guilt response is something that is supposed to happen to us when we are in violation of our principles, not something we elicit.  Thus, please be patient with your children.  Their values and principles are still being molded; thus, the guilt response may not always manifest when they make a mistake or do something wrong. However, you are their teacher.  How you respond to their behavior is more important than how they respond to yours.  Therefore, it is imperative that we, as parents, work diligently to be on our best behavior. 


God bless all you brave souls whom have ventured out on this journey known as parenthood.  I hope you will consider these thoughts as you continue with your parenting endeavors.  I’d be happy to entertain your thoughts, comments, or questions.


To read more of my articles, you can visit There you can also read about my parenting seminar, The R.I.S.K.S. of Parenting.


Submitted by Lea May (not verified) on

Nice article Josh. I would add that parents should acknowledge the feelings that the child has as a beginning to positive guidance. So many times parents discount the feelings of their children which can lead to frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

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Submitted by josh on

Thanks for the additional thought, Lea.  Our emotion is such an important part of our being.  Have you read, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman? If not, I would highly recommend it. 

Submitted by Jack (not verified) on

Interesting article. Need some clearing up or understanding. Are you saying guilt as an emotion is inherent like sadness, gladness, or empathy? Not taught? If this is your feeling then by definition it can't be taught. Seems to me. As a weapon it's useless. Because if it's taught it can be taken away. In not taught, it cannot.
Oh and loved the subtle therapist humor in mommy porn article. It was great! Thanks for the smiles.
And I don't know whats wrong with your site, but it wouldn't accept my homepage. My home page is My yahoo

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Submitted by josh on

Hey Jack.  Thanks for your response and encouraging me to clarify.  First all me to clarify what I am referring to when parents "use guilt as a weapon."  This is when parents try to elicit  guilt from their children instead of allowing them experience it naturally.  See article again for example.  So, to get to your question.  I do believe all emotion is inherent, but we are taught when certain emotions are or aren't appropriate for any given situation. This is the general idea of what is known as "emotion regulation"in parenting literature. You're right, it is useless when used as a weapon because it is harmful.  It neither helps the child mature emotionally nor does it nurture the parent-child relationship.  In many cases, the children end up losing respect for their parents and will often harbor resentment. You'll have to clarify for me what you are getting at when you say "if it's taught, it can be taken away."  Thanks again for commenting.

Submitted by Jack (not verified) on

If guilt is taught then it can be un-taught. Which I believe is incorrect. Children are taught to lie, but the feeling of guilt or lack there of is God given. Can those feelings be regulated? Not so sure. Can they be made to appear regulated? Probably so. Otherwise, no ice cream after you apologize! Look at all of the criminals that end up back in the pokie.

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Submitted by josh on

I think we are more on the same page than not.  I believe they are God-given. As parents, I think we are "teachers of emotion regulation", if you will, whether we want to be or not.  Children are paying attention more than we'd like to admit some times, and they will often determine if an emotion is safe to express based on how thier parents react to it. John Gottman talks about this in his book. He discusses the negative effects on children's emotions from having emotionally dismissive and emotionally disapproving parents (see book Rasing an Emotionally Intelligent Child). We should neither be emotionally dismissive (e.g., ah, don't cry, it's too far from your heart to kill you.) nor emotionally disapproving (e.g., If you're gonna cry I'll give you something to cry about), we should also be careful to not to use emotion against our children. In other words, it is not good to try to make them feel bad for not feeling bad. 

I liked Josh's discussion that our job as parents is not to make our children feel like they have to take care of parents out of guilt. Dr. Rutherford (Clinical Psychologist) talks about the long term consequences of parenting with guilt, namely shutting the child down emotionally for a lifetime, feeling guilty throughout his life, and then partnering with someone who continues that guilt inducing style.

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