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Guilt is Good


Shame is part of normal development through toddlerhood. This emotion develops later than the less complex emotions of sadness, happiness, and anger. But before empathy and guilt. As a toddler develops, the adult has to say “No” to them sometimes, to stop the child from hurting themselves or others, to keep them safe.  The child does not enjoy this experience, as at this age it raises feelings of shame or “I am bad”. 

But it’s actually not as simple as that! Especially where children are concerned.

As adults, we are often told that we shouldn’t feel guilty about things. And rightly so. There is no point in berating ourselves endlessly over something we have done wrong. From time to time most of us do something we might feel guilty about. And that’s ok.

It is much healthier to feel guilt than shame, as we can do something about feelings of guilt. That is because, to be able to feel guilt we will also have developed the ability to feel and understand empathy. When we feel guilt, knowing we have done something wrong, we can then accept that we have done something we shouldn’t have done and then set about repairing or correcting our mistake.

Guilt and shame are a natural part of life because society expects us to take responsibility for our actions. But there is a huge difference between the two, depending upon the developmental stage the brain is at.

So, shame is the emotion that most children feel if they are told off when they are young.

Shame is where a person does not distinguish from the act of ‘doing something bad’ and ‘being a bad person’. So, the child feels either “I’ve done something bad” or “I am bad!”

If a child does something which they subsequently realise was wrong or if they see you are going to say “No” to them or chastise them, they may cry or try to hide or run away.

Because they think they are bad.

This is because they feel shame. It is a natural reaction because they haven’t yet learned the feeling of guilt.

A parent or carer who recognises this and reconnects with the child in a therapeutic way immediately repairs the relationship by comforting or soothing the child. Then the parent, once they have connected with the child, can either show them how to do the activity appropriately or redirect them to something else. Thus, reducing the feelings of shame.

Because at a young age the child only experiences small amounts of shame, within a safe and secure parent-child relationship, it is healthy. This is the easiest time to teach them, and it’s how they will learn that they are not bad, just that a particular behaviour was not acceptable. But the parent must connect with the child first. This is called attunement.  It is where an emotional connection happens between the adult and the child.  They share and enjoy positive emotional states, and the adult manages and contains negative emotional states for the child, as they are not yet able to do this for themselves.

Shame is a normal feeling.

So is guilt.

But guilt is an emotion that can only be present when the brain has developed and matured sufficiently for a child or young person to be able to understand empathy, have an understanding of other people’s perspective on experiences. Guilt is a much more complex emotion and may not be reached until around the age 6 and often even much older.

So, yes. Feeling guilt is a good thing!

But knowing and being able to feel guilt, doesn’t mean we need children to hang onto that feeling. It is just a developmental stage, which allows us as humans to become caring thoughtful emotionally intelligent adults. Rather than allowing a child to feel guilty for more than a moment or two, it’s much better, I think, to be able to get to the bottom of why they were displaying the behaviour in the first place! Understand what their motives were when they were ‘behaving badly’, instead.

All behaviour serves a purpose so if we are experiencing challenging or unwanted behaviour, are we overlooking or neglecting a need? What might the perceived ‘bad’ behaviour be a reaction to? If we look for the cause, rather than label it as ’naughty’ or ‘bad’ behaviour then we might actually see why the child could be hurting. This is then when we can help them, by attending to their need, so they will have no reason to use this behaviour.

And if a child has perhaps done something inadvertently that has had a negative effect on someone and they are feeling guilty about it then this is where we teach them how to repair the damage, where possible, learn from the experience and then help them to be able to forgive themselves and move on.

And believe me, it really is a good feeling when I see a child start to see things from another person’s perspective and begin to experience feeling ‘guilt’ rather than ‘shame’ if they have done something they shouldn’t. That’s when we start to tell them, “It’s ok!” That is when we start to help them learn how they can put things right and feel a little guilt for a short while, rather than shame. Then they can begin to work out how to repair the situation. What they could do differently next time? But more importantly that the occasional mistake doesn’t make them a bad person! We can show children that guilt is good - it’s recognising a mistake and feeling remorse - but we can also show them not to hold on to it. Do something about it. Put it right and learn from it.

And if a child has perhaps done something inadvertently that has had a negative effect on someone and they are feeling guilty about it then this is where we teach them how to repair the damage, where possible, learn from the experience, and then help them to be able to forgive themselves and move on.