Why It’s Okay for Your Child to Feel Guilty

why it's okay for your child to feel guiltyMost of us in our parenting journey, have made our child feel guilty for what they have done – especially if they have been mean or hurtful – because we know that it is a great way to motivate them to change their behaviour!

Nobody likes feeling guilty or ashamed, so our child is motivated to change their behaviour and avoid these uncomfortable feelings in future.

However guilt and shame are NOT the same thing, even though both encourage and motivate change.

The main difference between these two emotions, is the role of the self.

When a child is feeling shame, the focus of attention is on the defective self.

If your child is feeling guilt however, although they still feel badly about their transgression – the focus is on the (mis)behaviour itself and how it can be repaired, or how to avoid repeating it in future. Guilt is more effective in encouraging change, healthier for the individual, and for the broader community. So it’s okay for your child to feel guilty!

In recent years, researchers have identified and highlighted the key differences in the consequences of both guilt and shame. Brene Brown, is perhaps the most well-known of these.

The Consequences of Shame

Research has shown that feelings of shame tend to result in the individual being:

  • More likely to blame others (as well as the self) for the mistake;
  • More prone to seething;
  • More likely to experience bitter feelings towards others;
  • More likely to become resentful;
  • More likely to become angry and hostile;
  • Less able to empathise with others;
  • Less able to reflect on the mistake, and correct or change future behaviour.

In addition, shame has recently been recognised as a major component in a range of mental health problems.

The Effects of Guilt

The experience of guilt on the other hand, has been linked to more effective interpersonal behaviour as well as greater emotional wellbeing. This results in the individual or child being:

  • Better able to empathise with others;
  • Less prone to anger and angry outbursts;
  • Able to express and handle anger, more productively and effectively;
  • More able to take responsibility for the mistake;
  • More able to reflect on how to repair the mistake, or prevent a similar problem arising in the future.

With shame, the self is under attack. As a result, the child sees themselves as flawed, defective and unworthy, making it a lot harder for them to acknowledge or accept responsibility for poor behaviour choices.

With guilt, whilst the child still feels painful emotions as they compare their behaviour with their values or what others believe they should have done, they are still able to see themselves as a worthy person who has made a mistake. The focus of attention is on the mistake, not the child.

Is Your Child Experiencing Shame or Guilt?

How can you tell which of these emotions your child is feeling when they need correction and discipline?  The following signs can acts as a guide, so that you can determine whether your child is experiencing shame or guilt at these times.

Guilt:

  • My child takes responsibility for their mistakes.
  • My child focuses on how they can do things differently next time to avoid making the same mistake.
  • My child shows empathy towards others who they may have hurt through their mistake or misbehaviour.

Shame:

  • My child tries to hide the fact that they have done something wrong, and may lie about it.
  • My child’s self-esteem suffers when they make a mistake.
  • My child tries to be perfect in everything he or she does.
  • My child becomes angry and aggressive when they have done something wrong.
  • My child blames others when they have made a mistake.
  • My child does not show any empathy when he or she does something wrong.
  • My child seems to feel powerless to change things when he or she makes a mistake.

Parenting Tips

Upon learning of the difference between guilt and shame, parents often ask: What can I do if I notice that my children frequently shows a shame response?  

Luckily help is at hand – there is a plenty of research into effective and compassionate parenting practices.

Try to avoid any discipline that involves ridiculing or intentionally “guilt tripping” your child. Phrases such as, “What were you thinking?”; “Don’t be silly”; or “That was selfish of you”; are examples.

In a nutshell, your aim is to say no to the behaviour, but yes to your child. A few useful books are listed in the references below; however, if you find that your child frequently engages in a shame response following correction, it may be helpful to consult with a parenting or child mental health expert.

Child Psychologist Jina KleynhansAuthor: Jina Kleynhans, B Soc Sci (Hons), M Clin Psych.

Jina Kleynhans is a Clinical Psychologist, with a special interest in child and adolescent mental health and working with families. She finds it particularly rewarding to assist parents to find loving and effective ways of handling the challenges of parenting, particularly as she has plenty of firsthand experience herself.

Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Jina Kleynhans try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.

References:

  • Brown, B.   (2012). Daring Greatly, how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, lead.  New York: Gotham Books.
  • Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, social roles, and differences in shame and guilt. Social Research, 70, 1205–1230.
  • Gilbert, P & Proctor, S.  (2006).  Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach.  Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 353-379.
  • Markham, L.  (2014).  Calm Parents, Happy Kids: The secrets of stress free parenting. London: Ebury Publishing .
  • Shapiro, S & White, C. (2014).  Mindful Discipline:  A loving approach to setting limits and raising an emotionally intelligent child.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  • Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P (2014).  No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.  New York: Bantam Books.
  • Tangney, J.P. & Dearing, R.L. (2002) Shame and Guilt.  New York: Guildford Press.
  • Tangney, J. P.; Miller, R S.; Flicker, L; Barlow, D. H. (1996) Are shame, guilt and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256-1269.
  • Niedenthal, P.M., Tangney, J.P. & Gavanski, I. (1994). “If only I weren’t” versus “if only I hadn’t”: distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 585-595.

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