Situational and Structural Variation in Youth Perceptions of Maternal Guilt Induction

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Parental induction of empathy-related guilt plays an important role in children’s moral development. However, guilt induction can also be psychologically controlling and detrimental for youth adjustment. This study provided a more nuanced view of parental guilt induction by examining how the nature of a child’s misdeed and the structure and content of the parental guilt inductive statement impact children’s perceptions of it. Using hypothetical vignettes, this study experimentally examined the impact of the type (domain) of child behavior, highlighted victim, and focus of parental criticism on 156 children’s and early and middle adolescents’ (age: Ms = 8.82, 12.11, and 15.84 years) perceptions of maternal guilt induction. Attributions of guilt and shame increased most for younger children, when mothers focused on indirect harm to themselves about personal issues, and when mothers criticized their child as a person (shame only). Youth evaluated guilt induction least positively for personal issues and when mothers criticized the child’s personality while focusing on indirect harm to themselves. With age, youth were less accepting of maternal guilt induction and more likely to endorse negative and parent-centered intentions, especially for personal issues. Older youth also drew less distinction between guilt induction over multifaceted and personal issues. Guilt induction over moral issues was generally perceived most positively. Additional interactions also emerged. These findings suggest that the meaning and effects of guilt induction on children’s development may depend on the way in which it is enacted.

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