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Why Guilt Can Be a Healthy Emotion in Children, But Shame Cannot

My husband and I had a long talk about the difference between shame and guilt last week, and then it came up again in conversation with friends who had children with emotional disorders. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes a massive difference.

Let me explain.

Guilt is an emotional than anyone, anywhere could feel at some point or another. Guilt can be felt without anyone else ever saying a word to you.

Guilt is what we feel when we fall short of our own hopes and expectations.

Guilt can be overcome (with effort) because it does not change our self worth.

Shame, however, is a different monster altogether. It can only be felt by people who have some type of interaction with others (e.g. a person raised in the wilderness could not feel shame) because it’s an emotion that comes from thinking about how others feel of us or our choices.

Shame is what we feel when we fall short of OTHER PEOPLE’S hopes or expectations.

Shame is really, really difficult to overcome because it changes a person’s self worth… their priorities… their ability to see beyond their emotions.

In children, a feeling of shame points to an input from someone else who has caused them to feel shame. It could be “someone” as broad as media, it could be someone as fleeting as a stranger who only spoke to them one time in the grocery store, or it could be as close as a parent or teacher who spoke words that cut straight to their heart.

Shame in children can look like hiding mistakes, crying when publicly rebuked, displaying signs of eating disorders, refusing to make eye contact, or acting out for “no reason.” The signs of inner shame can go on forever because they could look like almost anything, depending on the child and what type of shame has been placed on them.

It also often looks similar to embarrassment, guilt, shyness, obstinence, or worry, which confuses a lot of parents.

However, shame runs deeper than the average embarrassment that comes and goes. It reflects an actual shift in how much the child thinks he/she is worth.

The most common form of placing shame on a child is from parent to child. It looks like chastising as opposed to correcting. It’s rebuking as opposed to teaching. It’s embarrassing them instead of conversing with them in private. It’s a voice tone of shock and anger instead of a voice tone that conveys consistency.

It happens a lot from teacher to student, too.

And in this century, it happens an incredible amount in social media. Children right now are bombarded with words that will make them feel an inch tall or pictures that make them feel invaluable. It never ends for them.

As parents, I think our job is to limit the amount of exposure they have to shame. We can be careful about how other people speak to our children, but more than that, we can be mindful of how we speak to our children.

If a stranger at the baseball field tells your son he’s getting chubby, pull him aside and speak with him about how little that stranger’s opinion actually means. Reassure him in his worth. Teach him to disregard hateful words by burying his self worth in something higher than any man.

If your daughter’s teacher continually makes her feel like a failure in front of the entire class, pull her out of that class and talk to her about how valuable she is. It’s not your job to protect your child from all hurt, shielding them from anything painful, but it is your job to protect them from permanent damage.

And much like how we make our children wear seatbelts because car wrecks can do permanent damage, we should also remove them from emotionally degrading situations because those can also do permanent damage.

It’s not allowing your child to be a “snowflake,” as media so often presents. It’s putting a protective barrier around your child’s foundational sense of self worth.

If your grown child called you on the phone and told you their boyfriend/girlfriend made them feel worthless every day, you would WITHOUT A DOUBT tell them to leave that relationship. That’s emotional abuse, and it leads to a sense of shame and unworthiness.

Why should teachers/friends/family members/mentors be any different? If your child is in a give-and-take relationship with another person (no, I don’t mean a romantic relationship), it is okay for them to want that relationship to not make them feel ashamed of themselves.

It’s necessary.

I’m not talking about the kid who comes home and says their teacher gives too much homework, or their youth group leader doesn’t choose them for worship roles, or their grandma doesn’t let them eat ice cream whenever they want.

I’m talking about the kid who comes home and says things like, “My teacher always looks mad when she says my name, and she always yells it from across the room. She always tells everyone else they don’t have to be my partner when we work in groups. She won’t give me high-fives because I have germs, but she hugs everyone else all the time.”

There’s a difference between a child who feels guilty (or should feel guilty) over something they did wrong, and a child who feels shame over something they did wrong because someone made them feel embarrassed about it.

If you’re experiencing this with your child, think through where their shame might be coming from. Consider how it got there, who put it there, and how you can help them undo the harm of it.

It’s not easy, but it is very important. There is no place in parenting for shame.

Why Guilt Can Be a Healthy Emotion in Children, But Shame Cannot

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). Why Guilt Can Be a Healthy Emotion in Children, But Shame Cannot. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Jun 2018
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