Helping Our Children Understand Shame

Helping Our Children Understand Shame

child feeling guiltyKristen Jan Cannon

An important parenting lesson that many parents often fail to learn is helping children understand the major difference between shame and guilt. Unfortunately, adults often don’t understand this concept themselves, and mixing these two very different emotions up can be detrimental to one’s development.

So consider this a brief, but significant parenting lesson that could shift the way you view and treat your children. And perhaps the way you view and treat yourself.

Family psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, (2013) explains that one of the key points of validating your children’s emotions is to understand how shame, which is often undetectable from a parent’s perspective, plays a significant role in a child’s behavior.

So what is shame? In very simple terms, shame is feeling that you are bad. Guilt is realizing you did something bad.

Can you see why you don’t want your children to get those confused?

After all, guilt is a healthy emotion. It means you are aware of your actions. It breeds accountability to resolve improper actions. It allows for self-improvement and positive growth.

Shame alienates you. It does not lead to positive changes. It is extremely painful, and often permanent. Many experts even claim that shame leads to a variety of psycho-social problems including substance abuse, depression, anxiety, etc. Shame is a completely negative, full-body experience. It is not productive or useful to human development. In fact, it often stunts growth in multiple domains.

So how are you helping your children understand the contrast between shame and guilt? It is vital to emphasize accountability without criticizing your children. Talk about their emotions and actions in a way that leads to solutions of healthy change. Validate your kids. Validate their feelings. Validate their point of view. And when they feel sorry for something, acknowledge that they did something bad, but they are not bad.

That seemingly minor detail will make all the difference in your child’s self-perception and life experiences. Start helping them realize this now.


1 Comment
  • Karl Pearson
    Posted at 22:54h, 09 April

    If Saddam Hussein’s parents had taught this to him, he would still be a bad person. There are some who feel no shame whatsoever, because they are sociopathic, such as Adolph Hitler, and any of his kind. Those people do terrible things, yet excuse themselves. Often these people had parents who were, “My kid would never do that!” type of parents. Are you? look closely at yourself, and be honest in your self-appraisal. Do you admit to yourself that your child may have done something bad, but that they aren’t bad? If you don’t realize the difference as the author states, it will be detrimental, but you may be someone who is a parent who excuses the bad things your own children do, so they never learn to feel the guilt necessary for change.

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