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10/28/18blog post

can guilt be good?

After driving his teenage son on a 300-mile weekend trip to play in a select soccer game, the dad was furious. In a therapy session, he yelled at his son for his total lack of effort on the field, and proclaimed that his son “should feel ashamed of himself.” The dad commented that his son didn’t appreciate the expense and impact of these trips on the entire family. His son angrily responded that his dad was “always trying to make me feel guilty.”

I complimented the dad on helping his son feel guilty. In this situation, guilt was an appropriate and positive emotion.

Guilt and shame are emotions that are out of style, somehow viewed as the reflection of overly-controlling parents. While that can sometimes occur, these emotions should be fostered and encouraged in our kids, not avoided.

A fascinating study just published by Daniel Sznycer and his colleagues studied shame in 900 people from small-scale societies across the world. Participants were asked to rate the degree of shame that would be felt in a variety of situations (for example, “you steal from members of your community”).  The researchers concluded that shame is a universal trait, evolutionally essential for the survival of a group.  Society depends upon people feeling horrible when they act in bad ways, with the hope that that avoiding such feelings will inhibit future bad acts.

Inducing guilt in our kids is a powerful and appropriate discipline technique. There is nothing wrong with telling a child that she should be ashamed of herself for hitting your sister or stealing from a teacher.

As with any approach, shame and guilt inducing behaviors can be toxic if used inappropriately, which is also true of time-out, praise, and other ways parents use to influence their children.

  1. Connect guilt to a specific behavior, not to the child. It’s important to emphasize the importance of being ashamed for a specific behavior (e.g., hitting), not ashamed of the person.
  2. Don’t use this excessively. The impact of any technique diminishes if used excessively. Save guilt-inducing comments for very significant violations, not for routine issues like cleaning your room and completing chores.
  3. Combine it with positive approaches. Guilt techniques tell a child what not to do, so it’s always important to verbally encourage alternative behaviors. Be sure your praise is specific, clear, and balanced.
  4. Adjust the approach to your child’s personality. Be careful of using this approach with highly sensitive youngsters, as some kids may overgeneralize your comments and feel shame over insignificant transactions.
  5. Be concerned if your child never feels shame. This could be a symptom of a narcissistic or antisocial personality.