Guilt

The High Price of Parental Guilt Trips

How guilt trips sabotage relationships.

Posted Sep 23, 2020

A sitcom is not a sitcom without a nagging mother pressuring her adult children to call or visit home more often. The choreography is always the same, with the mother applying pressure for greater contact through passive aggression, outward hostility, or persistent complaints. And while the trope is tired, exaggerated, and often sexist, guilt does take place in many families. Across cultures, genders, and religions, my clients speak about guilt as a factor that drives their relationships with their parents.

Why does this happen? What leads to cycles of guilt in families that leave both parents and adult children frustrated? Why does this mechanism continue to be used?

The Feelings Behind Guilt

Parents who use guilt to increase contact with adult children may feel fear, love, or anger. They may fear the distance created by their children building their own lives and spending time and energy with others. They may fear becoming less relevant or central in the child's life. They may feel such love for their child that they want to remain close. They may feel angry or indignant that they aren't receiving the attention they believe they deserve.

When a parent does not know how to discuss these feelings openly and take responsibility for them, they may use guilt to coerce their children into closer contact to assuage their own discomfort.

 Spencer Selover
Source: Pexels: Spencer Selover

Guilt deployed by a parent can sound like:

  • "I feel so lonely when you don’t call me."
  • "Your brother calls me every day; why can’t you?"
  • "Since you didn’t bother to come over, I cleaned the garage myself."
  • "You don’t want to see your mother?"
  • "I did everything for you, and you can’t be bothered to visit?"
  • "If you move away, I’ll get depressed."
  • "You're leaving already?"

The Short-Term Win, the Long-Term Loss

If the child internalizes the guilt and takes responsibility for their parent's feelings, a guilt trip may successfully bring a child home to visit or call more often. The immediate payoff of guilting a child into closeness may indeed be increased contact. 

But make no mistake, the price for that contact is high. An adult child who feels manipulated into contact, who feels compliant rather than excited to show up, may remain emotionally absent. Guilt erodes a relationship and creates resentment.  

The child experiencing guilt may respond by:

  • Shutting down emotionally
  • Lashing out
  • Outwardly complying while internally seething
  • Finding ways to maintain privacy and a sense of control
  • Setting different boundaries

These ways of fighting back against a guilt trip and taking back control may perpetuate the cycle if not done consistently and openly. The parent may notice their child responding angrily or seeming emotionally disconnected, and, panicked at seeing their child pull away, turn to the tool they know works: more guilt. And so the cycle repeats. 

Guilt can increase physical closeness or greater communication, but it cannot create true emotional intimacy. In the long-term, guilt leads to greater disconnection.

Moving Beyond Guilt to Healthier Relationships

Even a long-standing use of guilt to drive a relationship can be reversed. Parents and adult children each have a part to play in breaking the cycle. 

Adult children can:

  • Notice when guilt is used and what feelings arise: If it is frequent or commonly used, this may take some time. This may mean noticing resentment, anger, and sadness.
  • Set boundaries: “I’d love to see you, but I can’t come that day.” “I already said no, please do not ask again." “If you continue to use guilt, I’m going to end the phone call.” "I need you to respect when I'm trying to hang up at the end of a phone call."
  • Describe the impact: Parents may not realize the impact of their using guilt. Now is the time to speak about feeling more distant from that parent based on their actions. 

Parents can:

  • Acknowledge past use of guilt: “You know, I think in the past I’ve wanted to see you so badly that I may have used guilt to get you to call more.”
  • Clearly communicate wants and needs: “I’d love to find a frequency of communication that works for both of us. How does a weekly phone call sound to you?”
  • Accept feedback: This may mean listening to the impact of months or years of using guilt and understanding that it may take time to rebuild the trust that it won’t happen in the future.
  • Respect boundaries: If a child says no to a particular outing, respond maturely to their decision.
  • Find new ways to connect: Repairing a relationship saddled with guilt may include finding new ways to connect that feel based on mutual connection rather than manipulation. 

Both parents and adult children can:

  • Practice discussing needs in an open, honest way: “Let’s try a reset. I want our conversations to be good ones.” 
  • Learn to identify cycles: “I think we’re doing that thing again. I’m trying to say no and you’re trying to get me to do something anyway. Let’s stop and try again.” “Mom, I feel myself shutting down.”
  • Compromise (in ways that feel good): “Dad, why don’t you come to visit me in my city this month? I’d love to show you around town.” 
  • Express appreciation to one another: “I’ve loved talking to you today.” “Thank you for letting me know what works for you.” “It’s ok that you can’t come over this weekend! I understand that you’re busy. Thanks for letting me know and I hope we can have a visit soon.” 
  • Check in: Breaking any cycle takes time and parents and children may need to check in and see how things are going. 

By learning to connect through honest communication, openness, and vulnerability, parent/child relationships can blossom. Guilt trips can make their way into the dustbin of stereotypical relationships and make room for more mutually satisfying ways of relating.