guilt and shame

Guilt and shame

motherhood research upbringing

What is the difference between guilt and shame, how guilt develops in children, and what exactly makes our emotions healthy or unhealthy. What are the long-term effects of childhood guilt, how do we support our children in order to keep it healthy, and how do we manage our own guilt.

What is the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they represent distinct emotional experiences. Guilt is typically associated with remorse for a specific action or behavior, where an individual recognizes a violation of their own moral or ethical code. On the other hand, shame is a more pervasive emotion tied to a sense of personal failure, inadequacy, or worthlessness. In short, shame feels like a pretty helpless reaction on how we think others see-and-judge us, while guilt is more related to what we did and gives some opportunities to take responsibility and fix that. Therefore, guilt is an important part of learning responsibility. And what’s really interesting is why some people simply don’t have it.

Stages of guilt development in children

An emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.


Early childhood (2-6 years)

Around the age of two, children begin to feel their identity as a separate thing and understand the concept of right and wrong, guided by their emerging sense of morality. Children start to internalize societal and familial expectations regarding behavior. Guilt during this phase is often tied to simple rules set by parents, caregivers, or teachers.

Middle childhood (6-12 years)

As cognitive abilities develop, children become more aware of societal expectations and norms. They start to comprehend the consequences of their actions on others and may experience genuine guilt when they violate established rules or hurt someone. Moral reasoning becomes more sophisticated during this period. Research says says that 9 is the age when kids are already fully capable of differenciating guilt and shame. It seems like from 5 to 9 a child is exactly learning to feel the area of their responsibility, and therefore it’s a specifically vulnerable age, when unnecessary feeling of guilt can be imposed or no sense of responsibility can be raised. The little storm has to be carefully embraced by a caregiver.

Adolescence (12-18 years)

During adolescence, the understanding of guilt becomes more complex. Teenagers are increasingly capable of abstract thinking and moral reasoning. Guilt may be experienced more intensely, and individuals in this stage may grapple with moral dilemmas and conflicts, contributing to the formation of their moral identity. That is when not only one can feel fully responsible for what they did, but also share responsibility with the groups of people they belong to and understand global thing like poverty, hunger, oppression etc.

Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others’ pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him-or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person’s natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.
Unhealthy guilt can be instilled when a child is continually barraged with shaming statements that criticize the child’s self, rather than focusing on the specific harmful behavior. A statement such as, “It is wrong to take someone else’s things without permission—please return my book,” creates an appropriate awareness in the child of healthy guilt for doing wrong. Saying, “Give me my book back! I can’t trust you with anything!” shames the child, declaring that he or she is by nature untrustworthy and will never be better than a thief, regardless of future behavior. Consequently, the child sees his or her identity as defective, and may feel powerless to atone for any wrongdoings. This identity can be carried into adulthood, creating a sense of debilitating guilt.
An important difference between shame and guilt is that in the former, a person does not feel he could have avoided the action; in guilt, he feels responsible. Guilt can be used to manipulate someone into behaving in a certain way. This is known as a “guilt trip.” Provoking another’s sense of guilt in order to obtain something that he or she might not otherwise have offered is a manipulation of internal motivations. If a woman tells her husband that she is going out for the evening with her girl-friends, and her husband responds, “Go ahead and go to the movie, dear … don’t worry about me … I’ll be fine here all by myself in this big old house all evening with nothing to do …, ” the wife will be made to feel guilty for her husband’s loneliness. If the guilt trip is heavy, the wife may decide to stay home with the husband, even though she really wants to go to the movie.
It is appropriate to let people know when they have unnecessarily or intentionally hurt others, or have ignored their responsibilities to others. This will instill fair guilt that will help a person be less hurtful in the future.
Although conclusive studies have yet to be conducted, it is likely that the sense of guilt changes along with a person’s cognitive and social development. These stages have yet to be thoroughly documented and are still open to critique.
Guilt can be deactivated, the conscience “turned off.” Some people never seem to develop a healthy sense of guilt in the first place, through a failure to develop empathy or a lack of appropriate limits, while others choose to turn theirs off. Guilt can be deactivated in two different ways:
1) The person convinces him-or herself that the act was not a violation of what is right.
2) The person reasons that he or she has no control over the events of life and is therefore not responsible for the outcome. With no sense of personal responsibility, there can be no sense of guilt.
When guilt is reduced, internal limits on behavior disappear and people can act without remorse.


Why some people feel no empathy, shame, guilt, responsibility?

Here are some potential reasons to why some people have feel it less to zero:

Is guilt a healthy emotion? Types of guilt

How do we generally recognize healthy and unhealthy emotions? Healthy emotions give us understanding of the situation and opportunities for a positive change while unhealthy ones drug us down.

Types of guilt

There are several types of guilt you may be feeling. Understanding how each might be affecting you can be helpful in learning how to best deal with this often-destructive emotion.

Emotions can be deemed unhealthy when they are disproportionate, persistent, or disrupt your overall well-being and functioning.

Emotions are suppose to be our friends, tips, clues, indicators, compass, not enemies. If they lead to any sort of improvement – great, if not – prehaps we need some help.

Positive and negative aspects of guilt

Positive aspects of guilt:

Negative aspects of guilt:

How can parents work with their children’s guilt?

The impact of childhood guilt can extend well into adulthood, shaping an individual’s psychological landscape. Unresolved guilt may contribute to various mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. Moreover, it can influence interpersonal relationships, career choices, and overall life satisfaction. Investigating the long-term consequences of child guilt provides valuable insights into the importance of addressing and managing these emotions during formative years.

While guiding a child in developing a healthy guilt, it is important for them to reflect on the link between the bad behavior and the repercussion. Guilt runs the risk of becoming unhealthy and depressive when childs behavior is linked to something that the child is not responsible for or has no power over, such as the financial difficulty of the family or the parents’ divorce.

Parents can teach coping mechanisms, promote empathy, self-reflection and fixing things by action whereever it is possible. Setting realistic expectations and emphasizing the distinction between actions and intrinsic worth can contribute to a healthier understanding of guilt. It’s important to teach to feel the borders between oneself and the feelings of others, things that we can and cannot control, feeling the healthy area of common responsibility.

What can parents do to manage their own guilt?

Parents, too, grapple with guilt, whether related to parenting choices, work-life balance, or personal aspirations. Managing parental guilt requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and realistic expectations.

We too have hard times, make mistakes and feel what we feel. Let’s not forget that this is exactly what life is – a learning process for all of us. What matters most is understanding what we can control and taking the next step.

Remember that you are a good enough parent.

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