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Quadcast transcript: Does guilt make good parenting

August 22, 2017
[music, voiceover] You are now listening to the UR Quadcast, University of Rochester’s official podcast.

Sandra Knispel: Welcome to the QuadCast. I am joined today by University of Rochester psychology professor Judi Smetana, an expert in the field of adolescent-parent relationships, and Wendy Rote, who got her PhD in Psychology at Rochester and is now an assistant professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Welcome to both of you!

Judi Smetana: Hi, Sandra.

Wendy Rote: Thank you, good to be here.

Knispel: Judi, let’s start with you. Both of you just recently co-authored a study about guilt, and more specifically about children’s and teens’ feelings and thoughts about parents using guilt as a parenting tool. And the concept of guilt is a bit controversial in your field. Can you explain why?

Smetana: Well, it’s primarily because there are two different research literatures on guilt. So, there’s research from the parenting literature where guilt is seen as a negative parenting practice. In that literature, guilt is seen as psychologically controlling, intrusive, and as negative for children’s development. On the other hand, in the moral development literature, guilt is seen as a positive parenting practice and is seen as a good way to help children internalize their parents’ moral values. So what’s key here though is really that the two literatures, or the important difference, is in how they conceptualize guilt.

Knispel: Wendy, how does your study address this particular controversy about guilt?

Rote: Well, in my study I tried to delve deeper into the different situations in which guilt might be positive or negative. I focused on three different elements. One is what parents are making kids feel bad about or guilty about, particularly moral issues. Whether they hurt someone else, and that we found to be relatively acceptable, kids tended to view that relatively positively, or personal issues. Things like what activities the kids were involved with, and kids there tended to find it relatively unacceptable for parents to induce guilt about those types of issues. I also looked at whether parents focused on just the child’s behavior or criticized the child as a person, and there kids actually didn’t seem to notice that it was more problematic. They didn’t find it less acceptable, but they felt much worse about themselves when parents criticized them as people. And then finally, I looked at whether it made a difference if the parent focuses on the correct victim, the person who really got hurt, or kind of indirect effects for the parent, making them feel bad. And here again, kids and teens were noticing that difference, and they focused on it being much more acceptable and positively motivated when parents focused on the correct victim, the person who really got hurt.

Knispel: Wendy, can you describe the setup for your guilt study?

Rote: Sure. What I did is I created some hypothetical scenarios, some stories, where I had teens or children involved in different kinds of behaviors, and then I had parents respond to those behaviors in the stories, and I asked kids and teens to rate how they think the story character would feel before the parent’s response, after the parent’s response, and then to rate the parent’s response itself: whether it was acceptable, whether it was effective at preventing that behavior in the future, and then also, what types of motives they thought underlay the parent’s guilt induction.

Knispel: Wendy, you looked specifically at scenarios in which guilt works and where it’s actually detrimental to the child or the young teen, and I think you addressed that a little bit already. So, in other words, if a parent says, ‘You shouldn’t do that because it makes me look bad,’ that’s not particularly an effective way of guilting a child, correct?

Rote: Well, you know, that’s an interesting question. It does seem to be effective at making the child feel guilty, but you’re right, it’s definitely not effective at making the child feel like they don’t want to do it again or that it’s acceptable. They’re going to think that the parent was kind of negatively motivated.

Knispel: So, Wendy, what’s the takeaway for parents? To guilt or not to guilt?

Rote: Well, unfortunately, it does depend a bit, but the big takeaway is it’s important to save your guilt induction for situations in which the child’s behavior really hurt other people. And when, and if, you do induce guilt, to do it mainly in ways that only criticize the child’s behavior, not the child as a person. And also, that younger kids, so I looked at ages 8 to 17 in my study, younger kids were more accepting of guilt induction, whereas older kids tended to really kind of negatively evaluate it more. So you also have to be conscious of your child’s age in this whole process and whether they are okay with you kind of trying to exert your feelings that way.

Knispel: Okay, show of hands, who actually here has children? Okay, so, you can’t see that, but Judi just gave me a show of hands. So, Judi, as the researcher you know one thing—as a parent you may or may not do what you know. Did you ever guilt your kids?

Smetana: I’m sure I did, but I definitely tried to stay away from it. So, I think there are other methods of discipline and other parenting practices that are more effective. So, yeah, I definitely try not to guilt my kids.

Knispel: Judi, we want to hear more about good parenting practices, and you have written extensively about adolescent-parent conflict, also known to some parents as the “Sturm and Drang” of their teenagers. What can you tell us about that?

Smetana: So I think the notion of “Sturm and Drang” is definitely overplayed. Generally, research shows that the nature of adolescent-parent relationships is fairly similar from childhood to adolescence. So if you have good, warm, close relationships during childhood, that’s likely to continue into adolescence. There are some changes though, in that there’s an increase in the frequency of conflicts or disagreements between adolescent and parents. And that’s because adolescence is a really important time for the development of autonomy, and adolescents are trying to gain more independence, sometimes than parents want them to have.

Knispel: And this is where the door slamming comes in. Now, there was a line in your research, Judi, that I thought just epitomized what I was looking at, which was that the “adolescent-parent conflicts are,” you write, “at their heart, debates of where to draw the line between parental control and authority” on one side, and then the “adolescents’ autonomy over the self” on the other side. So, what do parents and teens agree upon and where do they generally disagree?

Smetana: Actually, there are large areas of agreement, and also some boundary issues that cause a fair amount of disagreement. So, in general, parents and adolescents agree that parents should be able to make rules and set limits about issues that have to do with adolescent safety and wellbeing. So, keeping them safe and healthy is really important to parents, and teens generally agree with that notion. They also generally agree that parents have the authority to make rules about social norms or appropriate behavior. On the other hand, parents and teens agree that adolescents should have some privacy, control over their bodies, and control over personal issues, things like their hobbies, their personal tastes, how they look, what they’re reading, what TV shows they watch, or who their friends should be. But parents and teens generally disagree about where to draw the line between things that pertain to wellbeing and safety, and things that should be up to teens to control. So, teens generally think many more things are personal and should be up to them than parents think they do, and that’s generally where conflicts arise: how to draw the boundaries between protecting teens and keeping them safe and allowing them some sphere or realm where they have personal choice. So, in the examples I gave you, things like, some of these things that we treat as personal choice may be fairly benign, what TV shows to watch and so on. 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. So, that’s where conflicts tend to bubble up.

Knispel: Wendy, I’d like to open it up to you again. Where do you, or does one, draw the line between control and autonomy?

Rote: Well, I agree that a lot of the important thing is to focus on what is going to keep the adolescent safe, and what you can kind of give a little on that will allow them that area of control while still maintaining the really important things to you as a parent and to your child’s safety. One of the other things that we find within the literature is that what’s very important is slowly providing more control to teens as they age. So, 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 provide to younger teens.

Knispel: And Judi, I can see that you’re ready to jump in on this one.

Smetana: I agree with everything Wendy said, but I think one of the things that makes it difficult is that first of all, a lot depends on your own teen and how responsible they are and their personality, and so on, but the other thing is that there really is no firm line, and it’s clear that adolescents’ autonomy is changing and expanding during adolescence and parents need to be aware of that, and sort of in tune with that balance at that moment or at that point in time with how much control is appropriate versus how much autonomy you can give your teen. And also, keep revisiting those boundaries as adolescents get older, and depending on their maturity and how they’ve handled the new privileges and responsibilities they may be granted, sort of see how that’s going and move forward slowly and carefully.

Knispel: I was going to pick up on something you said a little earlier, Judi: You said most parents agree that it falls into the child’s domain to decide about looks. And I understand there are lots of areas of overlapping, so I’m thinking, if my 14 year old comes to me and says, ‘I want a nose ring and I want a pierced tongue,’ yes that’s her look, but boy do I have something to say about that.

Smetana: That is a great example of how these boundary issues can be so difficult to negotiate. So there’s so many aspects of appearance that we think are fairly trivial, their personal tastes, and then there are these areas that are highly contentious. And so that’s really where the difficulty comes in, that’s where the conflicts arise, and there’s no one answer that fits all. You know, that really is up to parents’ feelings about those things, their view of the health risks involved in those things. I should say that my son has an eyebrow piercing, he spent a semester in Denmark studying abroad and came home with it, and I have to say, I was not very happy about it.

Knispel: I was going to say, how much did you not use guilt at that moment in your response?

Smetana: Well I knew it was way too late to do anything. He preempted the discussion and he was an adult when he did it, and he still has it.

Knispel: Any strategies you want parents to know about when they negotiate this territory of control and autonomy?

Smetana: Well I knew it was way too late to do anything. He preempted the discussion and he was an adult when he did it, and he still has it so.

Knispel: Are there any other strategies you want parents to know about when they negotiate this territory of control and autonomy?

Smetana: Well I would say there are several strategies: communication, communication, communication. So, I think the most important thing is that the lines of communication really have to be open. So, parents need to provide guidance, they need to provide structure for their teens, they need to provide clear rationales for the kinds of rules and expectations that they have, but I think they really have to listen to their teens. I think that’s often very hard for parents to do. One of the things that we’ve learned in our research is that adolescents and parents have very different views of some of these issues and as we’ve been discussing parents often see an issue of conflict as one of safety or their teen’s wellbeing or of following established social norms, family or community norms, and it’s likely that the teen views that same issue in a very different way. So, they tend to think about things as, you know, ‘it’s my choice, it’s up to me, it’s my room, you don’t have the right to tell me to do that.’ It’s really important even if parents make the final decision that they listen to their teens, respect their opinion, even if they don’t want to negotiate the issue.

Knispel: When you say a teen may say ‘that’s up to me, that’s my domain’ that gets us to another topic which is spying on your kids. When I phrase it like that I think most of us will say ‘oh God gosh now that’s a terrible thing to do.’ On the other hand, I think given the option of implanting a little device in the back of their necks so you know where they are at all times, I think a lot of parents would jump at that opportunity. So, Wendy if you’d like to take a stab at this first, do parents have the right to know what their teens are up to and, at the same time, don’t they have a duty to keep their children safe? So, how much asking, and maybe even snooping, is okay?

Rote: Well, so I completely agree that parents absolutely have a right to know what their teens are up to, however, we find that it’s most important that they’re direct about that right and about the reasons they want to know things, and that the best way of finding out about what your teens are up to is have the teen tell you him or herself, and that snooping in particular is a really problematic strategy. It undermines trust within the relationship, it tends to make teens in particular feel very intruded upon, very reactive, much more likely to not disclose to parents in the future or even to lie about things. So, although parents have this right to know, they have to again communicate and negotiate to their teens about why they want to know. Teens do respect their parent’s right to regulate things especially when those are issues of safety, and so if parents can explain their situation and try to listen to their teen and find a negotiation strategy where the teen is willing to tell them something it is much preferable.

Smetana: I just wanted to highlight again the importance of good communication. So, we do know that 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 keep you in the loop. And so that takes a great deal of trust on the part of the parent and also a great deal of trust on the part of the child that their needs are going to be respected.

Knispel: And I guess as the child as you find generally that your child is doing what you want him or her to do, there’s less of a need to snoop.

Smetana: Well I would say that if you need to snoop then probably there is some problems in the relationship. So, we know snooping is intrusive, that it’s almost always interpreted negatively on the part of the child, and it’s probably a last resort for many parents. So, I think before they snoop, they should sort of back up and think of other ways, other strategies so they can negotiate their relationship so that becomes unnecessary.

Knispel: So, for example, what do you say to parents asked straight out if you have a question or a concern or maybe even an inkling that your child may be, and I’m picking an example, doing drugs. Rather than searching their entire room for paraphernalia go directly to the room of the child and ask, ‘Are you doing drugs?’

Smetana: Well, the research on asking directly, technically people talk about that as soliciting information, is kind of mixed. There’s some evidence that suggests asking kids directly is negative, but I think that’s because parents tend to resort to that primarily when they suspect their child is already in trouble. So, I think one has to be careful in saying, ‘yes always confront your child,’ but I think that’s preferable to snooping.

Knispel: So, you were already talking about preferable behavior on the parent’s part. So, let’s talk a little about best practices for, not only parents, but educators when it comes to dealing with adolescence in their natural quest for greater autonomy, what would you tell them?

Smetana: A lot of this has to start in childhood, that it depends on the quality of the relationship between parents and children, so it’s really important to establish a warm, trusting and responsive relationship with your child before they hit adolescence so that you have a firm basis on which to proceed. So being warm and responsive doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have rules and standards and have high expectations for your children—and in fact I think that doing so, having firm rules, making your expectations clear, providing rationales, that along with responsiveness, will take parents a long way towards getting through some of the speed bumps of adolescence. Beyond that I think it’s very important to take the time to listen to adolescents, understand their point of view even if you disagree. We have done some studies in our lab where we have had adolescents to come into the lab and asked them in interviews to talk about issues of conflict in their relationships and have them sit down together to discuss them. 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. So, I think there needs to be more of those kinds of discussions in parent-adolescent relationships. On a different note, I think it’s really important that adolescents know that you’re there for them. So adolescence is a very difficult time for teens, they’re going through a lot of biological changes, the physiological changes of puberty, they may be transitioning into middle school and to high school, they’re dealing with peer pressures and desires to be liked by their peers, they’re beginning romantic relationships, so 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, and I think it’s also important to remember for parents that even if your kid storms out of the room, calls them names, says that they’re the worst parents they can ever imagine, that’s not really true. The kids still love them and the kids are listening even if you think they are ignoring your advice.

Knispel: Now what about what you read in the parenting books for little toddlers when it says ‘pick your battles, don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Does any of that apply also, here to teens?

Smetana: I think that’s exactly right. I think that a part of what we’re talking about here is that the development of autonomy develops over a lot of the small stuff. So one of the biggest issues of adolescent-parent conflict is the state of the adolescent’s room. Whether they keep it clean, or how it’s decorated. Well I would say that parents have a lot of good reasons, parents say the room is a part of the house, or I’m teaching them how to be responsible. But in the scheme of things I would say that’s one of the small things. Maybe it’s okay to let that one go and focus on other more important things. So I think it’s thinking about areas where you can grant them autonomy, where it’s safe to do so, where they can express their uniqueness and their selves while keeping them safe, so try to think about the areas where you really let them do that. My son actually for a while, my younger son, had police tape taped over the door of his room, you know ‘keep out’ tape, which I personally found very offensive, but we let it go.

Knispel: Is that the one with the earring?

Smetana: No, that’s the other one.

Knispel: Well I’m taking copious notes and I’m sure you’ll be getting a thank you note from my thirteen-year-old daughter, who also thinks her room is clean when I disagree.

Smetana: When there’s no rats, no insects.

Knispel: So small stuff, I should just let it go. Alright, good, I’m learning something. So, what is the steer clear list? Wendy, do you want to jump in here? What really should you not do if you want to have a good relationship with your adolescent or your teenagers?

Rote: Well one of those things I would say is try to be respectful of the areas in which the teen has asserted their authority, and again like Judy said, that maybe you can let go. So if you’ve talked with them and you’ve had a conversation and they’ve expressed reasons why they believe that they should be able to dress a certain way or keep their room in a certain style, being respectful of that and acknowledging those feelings I think can go a long way towards improving communication and having teens be more open to other areas in which maybe parents have more of a right to assert their authority. It’s sort of the idea that you know okay if you’re not trying to control me in everything maybe there’s a reason you’re actually trying to put your foot down about this or that, and again, communicating—communicating, communicating, is so important like Judy said, and recognizing that your teen is listening. I wanted to bring in, I’m currently doing a study where I’m bringing in parents and teens and they’re talking about issues of guilt and we have them reflect upon how they think their partner felt during the discussion and we find often that parents will say oh, my teen doesn’t feel guilty they don’t feel guilty about these things, but when you look at what the teens say they’re saying oh no, I’m feeling guilty, I’m listening, I’m hearing what my parents are saying and it matters to me.

Smetana: Another thing I’d really like to add is that it’s really fine for parents to show their emotions, but when we’re dealing with highly reactive or aggressive kids one of the pieces of advice or one of the things people do with interventions is to take a breath and count to ten before you act. So I would say the same thing to parents when they get upset at something their teen does to take a breath, count to ten, and think about how they want to respond. Because we know that from some of the research on disclosure and secrecy that how parents respond when they hear that their teen has done something or hasn’t told them where they’re going, or done something that makes them unhappy that the way parents respond really affects whether they open up and talk more about the issue or really shut down and become more unwilling to communicate with their parents. So I think the advice that we give to children about regulating their emotions also can be very valuable for parents in terms of not overreacting. You know it’s like ‘you did what?!’ you need to chill for a minute and modulate a little bit.

Knispel: Thank you so much— a lot of good advice, lots of food for thought here. Thank you professors Wendy Rote and Judi Smetana for the interview.

Smetana, Rote: Thank you!

Knispel: For the University of Rochester QuadCast, I’m Sandra Knispel, thanks for listening.

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