Teaching kids healthy guilt is important to child’s development

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Healthy guilt is good for your kids...

Guilt gets a bad rep for being a negative emotion. But, like anger or sadness, it isn’t necessarily bad. It’s how people act upon the emotion that decides whether or not it’s bad. A study in Canada proves that healthy guilt can even teach kids how to become better adults.

There are some kinds of guilt that are helpful in children’s development into well-adjusted and sensible 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 Teaching kids healthy guilt is important to child’s development

Healthy guilt promotes good behavior

In a study led by Malti, she found that guilt plays an important role in helping children develop pro-social behavior. “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 behavior. 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 behavior. We believe it's an important emotion to have because it also creates a motive to engage in reparative behaviour."

Malti says 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 goes 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 to experience something as complex as guilt. At least not until around age 6.

By that age, she said, the majority of children report guilt in response to unacceptable behaviour. These in turn help these kids to treat other people more kindly.

The window between 3 and 7 years old is an important part of a child’s cognitive development. Here, they can begin to understand that their behavior can make another person unhappy.

At the same time, a child improves his/her ability to coordinate their emotions with their thoughts."This creates lots of learning opportunities,” she 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, they mostly appeal 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 necessarily need other people to be physically present in order for you to feel it, even imagining it is enough. 

So it's also important not to shame children about what they did, and instead let them think about the consequences of their actions.

Moreover, the 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 empathize with people. However, too much of this emotion and the child may grow up to judge themselves too harshly or feel responsible for things that are beyond their control (divorce, death, etc).

healthy guilt 1 Teaching kids healthy guilt is important to child’s development

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 generalized 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 realistic 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 being: 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 sibling is crying, and this is because you have damaged 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 behavior. It's also important to help them understand what their responsibility actually is and what is not.

healthy guilt 2 Teaching kids healthy guilt is important to child’s development

Healthy guilt through better language

In one way or another, some children are like some 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 recognize “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”.

Republished with permission from: theAsianParent Singapore