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Does guilt make good parenting?

August 22, 2017
child looking confused(Getty Images)

There isn’t much Judith Smetana doesn’t know about parenting teenagers. Not just because she has first-hand experience of a sudden eyebrow-pierced offspring, or a teenage son’s bedroom door sealed off with a not so-subtle message “police line—do not cross”—but rather because she’s made it her life’s work to study kids’ moral development and adolescent-parent relationships.

A professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Smetana has become a regular go-to for national media such as the New York Times, Reuters, Time, and New York magazine. As a mentor and advisor to dozens of Rochester graduate students over an almost 40-year career, she has co-authored most recently a study with Wendy Rote, her former PhD student and now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, looks at the effect of using guilt as a parenting tool.

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The researchers asked 156 children ages 8 to 17 to evaluate hypothetical stories depicting mothers’ behaviors in reaction to their children’s misdeeds. While guilt over one’s own behavior can play an important role in children’s development, children respond negatively when mothers use guilt indiscriminately.

Kids, the study found, were most accepting of guilt when the child’s actions affected the welfare and rights of others, and when it focused on the harm to the actual victim, without criticizing the perpetrating child as a person.

However, if children thought the hypothetical mom focused on how the child’s action hurt her or her feelings, if the mom brought issues into the equation that the child considered personal or private, or if she criticized her child instead of the actual behavior, guilt and shame increased, thus rendering the practice harmful and ineffective.

“Kids didn’t find it less acceptable, but they felt much worse about themselves when parents criticized them as people,” Rote found.

But it’s not just the context that matters. The age of the child does, too. The older the child, the less likely he was to respond positively to the hypothetical mother’s attempt at guilting her child.

“Save your guilt induction for situations in which the child’s behavior really hurts other people.”

The concept of guilt remains controversial among researchers, explains Smetana. Basically, there are two diametrically different research literatures on guilt. The parenting literature generally describes it as a negative practice. “Guilt is seen as psychologically controlling, intrusive, and negative for children’s development,” says Smetana. However, the moral development literature sees guilt “as a positive parenting practice and a good way to help children internalize their parents’ moral values.”

So, what’s a parent to do: to guilt or not to guilt?

It depends, says Rote, the study’s lead author. “Save your guilt induction for situations in which the child’s behavior really hurts other people. And when and if you do induce guilt, do it mainly in ways that only criticize the child’s behavior, not the child as a person.”

The teenage years: sturm and drang?

 The study raises a broader question: What fosters a positive relationship between parents and their teens? The image of the door-slamming, moody teenager is a familiar one in American culture. But how well does it reflect reality?

Smetana, for one, isn’t buying the whole sturm and drang stereotype. “It’s overplayed,” she says. Instead, she points to research that shows that the nature of adolescent-parent relationships is fairly similar from childhood to adolescence. “If you have good, warm, close relationships in your child’s earlier years, that’s likely to continue into adolescence.”

But conflicts do become more frequent. Adolescence is an important time for the development of autonomy, and adolescents are often trying to gain more independence than parents want them to have. Being warm and responsive doesn’t mean the absence of rules, standards, and high expectations, Smetana notes. Quite the contrary, she says, having firm rules, making your expectations clear, and providing rationales will take parents a long way towards getting through some of the speed bumps of adolescence.

Judith Smetana

Professor of psychology Judith Smetana has studied adolescent development for nearly 40 years. (University photo / Brandon Vick.)

Essentially, adolescence turns into a precarious balancing act between keeping the teens safe on one hand—and respecting their right to privacy and personal choice on the other. But who’s doing the calibrating?

Teens and their parents mostly agree that keeping the offspring secure and healthy is a parents’ prerogative, Rote says. They also generally acknowledge that parents have the authority to make rules about behavior. Furthermore, both sides recognize that adolescents should have some privacy and control over their bodies and personal issues, such as hobbies, tastes, how they look, what they’re reading, what TV shows they watch, or whom to befriend.

The problem is that parents and teens generally disagree about where to draw the line between things that pertain to a child’s wellbeing and safety, and things that should be up to teens to control.

“Some of these things that we treat as personal choice may be fairly benign—what TV shows to watch and so on,” Smetana explains. “On the other hand, if movies or TV have too much sexual content or are too violent, parents may no longer think that they’re personal but may think that they’re something they should regulate. That’s where conflicts tend to bubble up.”

How to find the right balance? It’s a matter of slowly relaxing the reigns and providing more control to your teens, advises Rote. “Just as important as finding a good middle ground, and drawing the line somewhere, is relaxing that line over time and giving older teens more personal control than you’d provide to younger teens.”

Of course, a teen’s maturity plays a vital role in this relaxing-of-the-reigns process. “Keep revisiting those boundaries as the adolescents get older, and depending on their maturity and how they’ve handled the new privileges and responsibilities they may be granted, see how that’s going and move forward slowly and carefully,” Rote says.

The best strategy, both experts say, is to keep the lines of communications wide open. It’s not a one-way street, cautions Smetana, who has observed that parents need to learn to become better listeners and to try to understand their child’s point of view, even if they disagree.

“We have done some studies in our lab where we have had adolescents and their parents come into the lab and asked them individually in interviews to talk about issues of conflict in their relationships and have them sit down together to discuss them,” Smetana says. “One of the really surprising parts of that research was how often parents said that they had never actually had those discussions before and how insightful it was to give each side a chance to express their point of view. I think there need to be more of those kinds of discussions in parent-adolescent relationships.”

Is snooping on your teenager ok?

Snooping is a really problematic strategy, says Rote. “It undermines trust within the relationship, and it tends to make teens feel very intruded upon, and much more likely not to disclose things to their parents in the future, or even to lie.” Teens respect their parent’s right to regulate things especially when it comes to issues of safety, so often it boils down to communicating and negotiating. Adds Smetana: “Having your child tell you what they’re up to is the best way to monitor them and keep track of what they’re doing but that really depends on having a good, healthy relationship. So, the more you can establish that trust and warmth and responsiveness in the relationship, the more likely they are to tell you what they’re doing or to keep you in the loop.”

In a nutshell

Adolescence is generally a difficult time for teens. They’re going through the physiological changes of puberty, they may be transitioning into middle school and high school, they’re dealing with peer pressures and desires to be liked by their peers, and they’re beginning romantic relationships, says Smetana.

“There’s a lot going on in their lives beyond what’s going on at home, and I think it’s really important that teenagers know that their parents are there for them and that they have their back.”

So, when your teen storms out of the room, calls you names, says you are the worst parent she can ever imagine, there’s a silver lining, say the experts.

“That’s not really true,” says Smetana. “The kids still love you and the kids are listening even if you think they are ignoring your advice.”

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