Guilt is a basic human emotion that is both distressing and uncomfortable, yet is central in our development and daily actions. Adults get themselves into trouble when they become accustomed to ignoring feelings of guilt. Ignoring guilt can be unhealthy and can also lead to a significant amount of pain and regret. Teaching children to recognize feeling bad about something, being thoughtful, and acting on it, is a wonderful way to develop a responsible human being.
We see this in young children; if a very young girl is playing with a doll and someone says “awe, you hurt your doll’s feelings”, you can see the girl feel badly and cradle the doll, or try to make the doll feel better. This is the beginning of feeling badly and acting to rectify it. At some point we begin to change our reactions to guilt depending on the types of situations we’re in, not always acting on it and sometimes ignoring it.
1. Guilt can be one of the worst emotions to feel but is extremely useful for motivating moral actions and general decency. With children, there are three ways to develop their ability to utilize the guilt they feel. Acknowledge when you see the child feeling guilty, through body language, what they’re saying, or their actions. Label the guilt and ask the child to identify the source of it. Encourage the child the talk about how they’re feeling, and guide the child through potential options for correcting the situation. Options may be to learn from the situation so as to not do it again, to apologize properly, and/or to take away a lesson about life that can be used going forward. It could be a perfect time to encourage finding meaning in mistakes.
2. Talk about times you have felt guilty. Describe what happened, how you felt, and what you did about it. Help the child to see this as a normal emotion and that is good to feel at times. Even better, you are modeling owning your behavior and acknowledging it instead of rationalizing away mistakes. It is not easy to be around an adult who avoids feeling guilty by blaming others and refusing to take responsibility. It is never too early to begin children on the path of being responsible for their own actions.
3. Begin the discussion about taking personal responsibility, while making it clear that we should not feel responsible for anyone else’s actions. Guilt has the potential for ballooning out of control, with some feeling guilty about many things and stuck thinking about the past. Many adults feel badly about events that were completely out of their control. That type of guilt is not helpful, it only serves to stifle people and prevent growth. But, helping children to embrace guilt for what it is will be a skill they can carry with them throughout their lives.
Girl with her doll image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 5 Aug 2013