01/13/2015 02:14 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

Why It's Okay If Your Child Feels Guilty

A reader wrote in:

Hi, I read your article about helping your child not become a bully and I really appreciated a lot of the tips. A question I have with my own son is how do I instill a sense of empathy WITHOUT instilling a propensity to feel guilty?

Growing up, I learned to empathize to the point that I didn't even know what I myself even wanted anymore (middle child). I thought about what others were thinking and feeling so much that I became paralyzed by empathy.

So now, I hesitate to say to my son, "Don't tell daddy he's mean because it hurts his feelings or makes him feel bad." I know my son shouldn't tell daddy he's mean BECAUSE IT DOES MAKE HIM FEEL BAD, but from my own experience, I just hate the idea of GUILT. My family of origin motivates through guilt and I do NOT want to perpetuate that legacy. I want my son to not tell daddy he's mean because he WANTS to be kind, not because he's guilted into ACTING kind.

This is a great question, which brings up a very important distinction: guilt vs shame. Guilt is when you feel bad about something you did. It is healthy, and motivates you to apologize and make reparations. Shame is when you feel bad about who you are as a person. It motivates you to want to hide, defend, minimize, deny, make excuses and basically pretend you and whatever you did don't exist. Shame is at the root of many psychological issues. I believe that your family likely motivated through shame.

Here are some examples of guilt versus shame in different areas:


Guilt: I overate at dinner. I should really watch my portions next time.

Shame: I am a fat pig. Look how much I ate. I should throw it all up.


Guilt: I yelled at my husband. I should apologize.

Shame: That bastard deserves everything. Screw it.


Guilt: I should read to her more. I'll start tonight.

Shame: What kind of a piss poor mother am I? I should go out tonight and let my husband do bedtime.

As you can see, being ashamed of yourself doesn't lead to a positive change in your behavior. It leads to a feeling of despair and trying to escape the feeling. You don't separate between what you did and who you are.

As regards your question, why would your child want to be kind if he didn't know that being kind makes Daddy happy? What would be the logic? People are kind because it makes others feel good, not for some abstract principle. And conversely, your son should avoid being unkind, because then Daddy won't be happy. This makes sense. Furthermore, a child should feel guilty for hurting Daddy's feelings. If he didn't, he would be a sociopath (assuming Daddy is not a horrible, abusive parent to him). However, a child should not be ashamed of himself, which is what I think you felt in your childhood. Here's two parent responses to a child being mean to Daddy, one that leads to guilt, and one that leads to shame:

1. "What a meanie! Look how you hurt Daddy's feelings. Why do you always act that way?" --> SHAME. Child will likely cry or throw a fit or run into his room. He feels bad about himself at his core and is reacting to this feeling. He cannot repair who he is; he is a meanie. He has no recourse and no way to fix the problem.

2. "When you said that, it hurt Daddy's feelings." --> GUILT.  Child knows there is a specific thing he did that had a specific bad consequence. It is easy enough to fix with an apology in most functional homes. Therefore, you child will likely say he is sorry, and then feel relieved. If the child is very young or keeps looking at you quizzically, you can say, "If you are sad that you made Daddy sad, you can say 'I'm sorry.'" Child can choose whether to say this or not, and natural consequences will be that either Daddy looks happier (if he says sorry) or keeps looking sad (if he doesn't).

But this brings up another point: is it really mean of your child to say Daddy is mean? Maybe Daddy was being mean. You can teach your child the same distinction that I just covered: between a behavior and a person. So, you (or better, Daddy) can prompt your child to say, "Daddy, it hurt my feelings when you took away my toy" instead of "Daddy, you're mean." Then, Daddy can say, "I'm sorry, I understand you're upset. But there are no toys at the dinner table." (Daddy just used empathy like a rock star.)

On a related point, some parents never show that their feelings are hurt, or never really show any negative feelings at all, in front of their kids and especially toward their kids (even when their kids are experimenting with being extremely rude to parents). This is not positive for your child, and in fact, it is entirely crazy-making to pretend to your child that you have no feelings.  When parents act like no matter how egregiously their child misbehaves, they never get their feelings hurt, this teaches the child that he can act however he wants with no regard to others' feelings. It can also make the child think of parents as not even human and as weird, calm instructor robots. He will not know later in life, in interpersonal relationships, how to deal when people do have normal emotions.

Your child deserves to be exposed to a range of human emotion at home, particularly since home is a safe space where he can ask questions and learn (e.g., "why do you look sad, Mommy?"). I'm not saying you should bawl and scream in front of your kid, and you shouldn't, but showing normal human emotions is fine, and some of those emotions are being sad or hurt when your kid hurts your feelings. This shows your child that he has agency in the world, others including parents have feelings, feelings get hurt and there are ways to repair relationships if you've hurt someone's feelings. If you never let your child hurt your feelings, even when he is trying to, then it will be a tremendous shock when he says or does the same things outside the home and gets a bad response from others and has no idea why they responded poorly or how to repair.

Anyway, hope this helps. Remember, talk about behaviors and not the child himself: Bad behavior vs. bad boy. And if he acts like a little jerk, I mean, his behavior is jerk-like, you can let him know.  His future wife will thank you when he can own his missteps and apologize without getting defensive and nasty. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Feels Guilty About Writing This Post While My Husband Watches The Kids.  Kind Of.

For more, visit Dr. Psych Mom, or visit Dr. Rodman on Facebook or Twitter @DrPsychMom.