Guilt gets a bad rep for being a negative emotion. But, like anger or sadness, it isn’t necessarily bad. A study in Canada proves that healthy guilt can even teach kids how to become better adults.
So don’t always be guilty about turning on the guilt trip. It turns out there are some kinds of guilt that are helpful in children’s development into well-adjusted adults. A professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Tina Malti, considers guilt an emotion similar to empathy.
“Moral guilt is healthy, good to develop,” Malti, who has studied the development of guilt in children, said. “It helps the child refrain from aggression, anti-social behaviour.”
Healthy guilt promotes good behaviour
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In a study led by Malti, she found that guilt plays an important role in helping children develop pro-social behaviour. “There’s lots of evidence that healthy guilt promotes children’s prosocial behaviour,” she said.
The six-year-long study was published in the journal Child Development, which investigated how sympathy, guilt, and moral reasoning help children learn the concepts of cooperation and other pro-social behaviour. She and her team of researchers collected data from 175 children along with their families and teachers.
She explained further that “Children learn the emotion of guilt in situations where they transgress important rules or societal obligations, such as not stealing or helping others.”
“Feeling guilt helps the child refrain from aggression and other antisocial behaviour. We believe it’s an important emotion to have because it also creates a motive to engage in reparative behaviour.”
Malti said a child can have an empathic reaction after making another child cry and feel bad about it. The child might also feel guilty because it goes against their sense of right and wrong.
A time window
She went on to explain how there is a developmental pathway to guilt. Toddlers may cry when they break a toy, but they don’t have the capacity to understand another person’s perspective and experience something as complex as guilt. At least not until around age six.
By that age, she said, the majority of children report guilt in response to unacceptable behaviour. These in turn help kids to treat other people more kindly.
The window between three and seven years old is an important part of a child’s cognitive development. Here, they begin to understand that their behaviour can make another person unhappy.
At the same time, a child improves his ability to coordinate his emotions with his thoughts.
“This creates lots of learning opportunities,” Malti said, which are essential to promote other-oriented skills like empathy and kindness. You need to understand how others feel as a consequence of your own behaviour.”
Guilt and shame
We know how previous generations have taught kids how to feel bad about their mistakes. However, these practices mostly appealed to a child’s shame rather than guilt.
There is an important distinction here as shame is an external emotion and guilt is an internal one.
Shame comes from how you are perceived by other people. Guilt comes from your perception of yourself. Though shame does not need other people to be physically present in order for you to feel it, even imagining it is enough to have a negative impact.
It’s important not to shame children about what they did, and instead, let them think about the consequences of their actions.
Meanwhile, a lack of guilt reduces a child’s capacity for empathy. An example of this is a child who exhibits a pattern of deliberate aggression, not out of anger but because of an agenda, while not responding to another child’s distress.
As a part of a child’s normal development, it’s important for a child to grow up with a sense of guilt that helps him evaluate his or her actions and empathise with people. However, with too much guilt, the child may grow up to judge themselves too harshly or feel responsible for things that are beyond their control (divorce, death, etc).
When guilt turns to anxiety
The chair of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, Dr. Helen Egger, said the exaggerated feeling of guilt can become an anxiety disorder. There’s generalised anxiety disorder, where a child can feel “a sense of being almost always hyper-aroused, looking for threats, but also feeling responsible.”
This, in turn, can lead to an increased risk of developing depressive symptoms and “overwhelming guilt is a key symptom of depression,” Egger said.
It’s difficult to balance the healthy development of conscience and moral feelings in children without weighing them down to the point of depression. Guilt is better when it’s constructive because it gives the child an appropriate sense of power and agency, and a real determination to do things differently.
In nurturing a child’s sense of guilt, it’s always good to focus on evaluating a child’s problematic actions rather than the child’s character. The message here is there is nothing wrong with the child, but the child chose to do something wrong.
Teaching healthy guilt through guilt “induction”
Malti suggested guilt “induction” as a way to nurture a child’s sense of guilt (and therefore, empathy). Parents can choose to frame how they tell children off by focusing on the consequences of their actions clearly.
For example: “Your brother is crying, and this is because you destroyed his toy.”
She found guilt induction helpful when working with children who showed a lack of guilt. Meanwhile, she also worked with children burdened with dysfunctional guilt, where kids feel responsible for the suffering of others.
“If parents are fighting,” Malti says, “it’s important to say how this is not related to the child’s behaviour.”
It’s important to teach children how they perceive their relationships and their behaviour. It’s also important to help them understand what their responsibility actually is and what is not.
Healthy guilt through better language
In one way or another, some children are like adults. They’re more inclined to negative thoughts and blame themselves for “always not doing anything right.” Adults (especially parents and teachers) should think about how they respond to a child’s mistakes.
The language an adult uses can just reinforce a child’s negative thinking. So it’s worth reiterating that adults avoid “language that sends kids the message that something’s wrong with you, as opposed to giving kids concrete strategies for being better going forward”.
The fundamental step in their development is when children recognise “their capacity to know right and wrong, to behave in that right way, and when they don’t, to repair it with honesty and straightforwardness.”