Hot Topic: Shame vs Guilt

hot topic shame

“Where is the shame?”

It’s a fair question.  There seems to be a no-fault policy in our culture today.  Politicians talk about things as independently “occurring” rather than as things that happen as a product of their actions.  Celebrities are caught in scandal and simply bat their eyelashes as their careers actually get a boost.  And children who make poor choices are absolved of any and all consequences.

Now, I’ll have to leave politicians and celebrities in their own category.  I’m here to write about child development, and they are (supposedly) adults.

When we talk about children and child guidance, we are often reminded not to use shame.  That’s advice I support.  Belittling or berating a child is not a tool that yields long-term, healthy results.  But an avoidance of shame in our culture seems to be overcompensating and blotting out recognition of guilt as well.

It’s as though the two have become synonymous.

It’s important that we understand the difference between shame and guilt.

As Brene Brown, who has spent her career researching shame, points out in the TED talk below:

“Shame is not guilt.  Shame is a focus on self.  Guilt is a focus on behavior.  Shame is, “I am bad”.  Guilt is, “I did something bad”.

In my own interpretation, shame is about self-concept.  Guilt is about emotion.

Guilt is an honest and valuable emotion.  And just as with other emotions, we should not skip over the guilty feelings a child experiences.  As Brown goes on to connect, guilt is the emotion that eventually leads us to say, “I’m sorry.  I made a mistake.”

Like other emotions, we acknowledge guilt (“It sounds like you feel badly about breaking Nana’s teacup.”), we empathize and validate it (“It’s OK to feel a little guilty sometimes.  It shows that you care about people and want to make better choices.”), and we use it as we problem solve (“What do you think you could do to help Nana feel better and maybe help yourself feel better too?”).

Recognizing guilt, taking ownership, and knowing how to do something healthy about it is a necessity.  And research tells us why.

As Brown points out, shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, and a host of other negative outcomes.  Guilt however, is inversely correlated with those same things.

We shouldn’t shame kids.  We don’t barrage them with negative labels, telling them they are bad, and we don’t use embarrassment or public shaming as a tool for shaping behavior.  We don’t ask them to pay repeatedly for their past mistakes, and we don’t confuse what they do with who they are.  The psychological price of shame on emotions and relationships is too high.  A child is more than his or her behavior.  When it becomes too difficult to separate the two, shame will always be in view.

But when kids feel badly about something, we shouldn’t race in too quickly to take that uncomfortable feeling away.  We don’t ask them to wallow in it, but we don’t ask them to ignore it either.  Guilt is an emotion, triggered by an action.  It’s a part of being human, social, and compassionate.  Those who feel neither guilt nor shame are literally sociopaths.

Our job as parents and teachers is not to rescue our children from feelings of guilt, but to teach them (as with other emotions) to recognize it and express it in healthy and productive ways.

(*Thinking about shame and guilt might have a bit of a message for ourselves as parents and teachers as well.  Listen to the talk below, and then check out the series The Myth of Perfect Parenting.*)

 More Heat:


Toddler Discipline Without Shame {Janet Lansbury}

“Good” Children — at What Price?  The Secret Cost of Shame {The Natural Child Project}

Do You Shame Your Child?  {Aha! Parenting}

What do you think?  Is there room for guilt in healthy child development?

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7 Comments

Filed under Child Development & DAP, Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Quick Thought / Hot Topic

7 Responses to Hot Topic: Shame vs Guilt

  1. Meegan

    In Brene Brown’s ‘the gifts of imperfect parenting’ she describes a tool we found useful in this shame vs guilt realm. We now say “Good girl/boy, bad choice” we might then describe the bad outcome and discuss a way to apologise, if necessary, and make amends.
    Will be interesting to read if anyone else is doing this?

  2. This really hits home. I grew up in a home where I was shamed a lot…over little and ridiculous things. It definitely cost my parents their trust and probably our relationship too.

  3. I’m probably missing a big piece of the puzzle as I haven’t listened to or read Brown’s research on shame. It seems to me that guilt is learned. It’s a taught by powerful institutions (church, law officials) or people (parents, teachers) from not meeting exact expectations. I feel that in the example of a child feeling guilty for breaking Nana’s teacup, the child (or an adult for that matter) should only feel guilty if they lied about it or something else secondary for breaking it. The primary emotion could be fear if past experiences’ lead you to believe you’ll be in trouble for being upfront about it to Nana. Other emotions may be sadness, remorse, or being angry at yourself for being clumsy. From my interpretation of guilt, it isn’t a healthy emotion. It’s taught and it doesn’t have anything to do with wanting to apologize or fix the situation (at least from an intrinsic motivation.)

    • notjustcute

      I think Kate nailed where I was coming from, Rebecca. “I was stuck in the place of never wanting them to feel bad, which is so unhelpful!”

      The word “guilt” has a negative connotation, but it’s largely semantics. I used it because that’s the word Brown uses. Another could work in its place. But the sentiment is what is important. The idea, like Kate said, that while we don’t want to shame children (make them feel bad about themselves) it is OK for them to “feel badly” about their choices. In the Aha! Parenting article I linked, there is a quote from neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal about the guilt impulse acting to “put the brakes on” in the brain of a child. It raises the red flag to say there’s a problem that should be avoided (when they’re making a decision) or fixed (when it’s already happened). That’s what I’m referring to. That kids recognize and listen to those feelings. I hope that helps clarify where I’m coming from.

  4. I think this might be some what of a missing link for me and my parenting…

    I don’t want my kids to think they are bad, but I do want them to recognise when they have made a bad choice. For a while I felt like I was stuck… I didn’t want to shame them, but I did want them to feel something they made a mistake, but I was stuck in the place of never wanting them to feel bad, which is so unhelpful!

    So just like I tell them that being scared is ok, this has hit home that I need to tell them that feeling bad or guilty or regretful is also ok!

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