What Parenting with Guilt Can Do To A Child

My step-daughter keeps telling her one year old daughter “that hurts my feelings” whenever the child doesn’t respond in the way she wants.

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MOLLY
: This came from a reader in San Diego, CA. She added that it “really rubs her the wrong way and that she thinks it’s inappropriate.” One of her friend’s told her she’s “old fashioned and it’s okay” but she’s wondering what she can do.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This could be a difficult area, especially since it’s her step-daughter and I don’t know what kind of relationship she has with her. However, if she feels like the relationship is strong enough, she should start a conversation about it.

She could begin by asking her step-daughter something like: “I’m curious as to why you say this so often to your daughter? Are your feelings really hurt?”

MOLLY: It sounds like this step-daughter is making everything about her, the mom, and not really taking into consideration what her child is feeling.

MOM: That’s right, and the child is very young. This will be confusing to the child to have this response all the time. What it may do is shut the child down so that she’ll be afraid to say much of anything to her mom for fear she will hurt her feelings.

MOLLY: What should this mom be doing instead?

MOM: I doubt very much that a one-year old child is focused on intentionally hurting her mother’s feelings; rather she’s just trying to make her way in the world.

Sometimes parents fall into using guilt to shape their children’s behavior. While guilt can be a powerful motivating force in a child’s life, we know now that there are more positive ways to influence behavior that don’t leave lingering side effects in the parent-child relationship.

The step-daughter herself may have been parented with a lot of guilt. Unfortunately, it happens in divorce cases sometimes that one parent tries to establish their dominance by using guilt in order to make that parent feel better about themselves. She may have learned to parent with guilt from her own parents.

The step-mother needs to tread carefully here. Perhaps she might want to give her step-daughter the gift of a parenting book that shows a different way of approaching toddlers.


I’d suggest The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp. There is even a DVD she could give the busy mom along with the book.

Of course, the step-daughter could be using this phrase appropriately, such as when the one-year old hits or kicks. The phrase, “You really hurt mommy when…” is appropriate to use when you’re teaching empathy and you want the child to realize that it hurts when they hit you.

As the child gets older, it would be appropriate to use that phrase when the child says or does something mean or uncaring.

The step-mother could model more positive parenting habits in her own interactions with the grandchild without directly criticizing the step-daughter and jeopardizing their relationship.

MOLLY: What are the possible long term consequences?

MOM: Using guilt to mold behavior in a one-year old lays the groundwork for a lifetime of guilty feelings for the child.

The long term consequences could be that the child will grow up recognizing that the mother’s world is focused on the mother. This will impact her in terms of the kinds of friends she makes and, later on, the kinds of long-term relationships she has.

She’ll expect the focus to always be on the other person, because that’s what her mother taught her, but she’ll still probably work hard to make the dynamics more equal.

I often see adults playing out their relationships with their parents within their adult-life relationships. For a child like this baby, that might mean picking partners who use guilt to control her behavior, just like her mom did.

ding 7 comments on “What Parenting with Guilt Can Do To A Child

  1. What wonderful blog! I couldn’t agree more on this.
    People have been using shaming and guilting techniques for generations…They didn’t know any better.
    As I always say to my clients:
    “The way we treat our children, the way they treat the world. Let’s make the world a better place!”

  2. i think sometimes parents sometimes throw out a comment or response without thinking of the consequences. it’s quicker and easier then really thinking about what you want to say. i’ve been guilty of it, and then do feel guilty about it. it always feels so much better to take the time to listen to what your child is saying and respond appropriately! Thanks Dr. Rutherford for sharing your wisdom!

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