Guilty or Not Guilty
26th January, 2011
I should not have done that and now I feel really bad. That is the voice of guilt, an internal reminder that tells you when you have overstepped your own moral code. For adults guilt can be a great burden, blunting their lives, but for children it can be unbearable.
Guilt releases powerful emotions, but it also changes how you see the world around you. You feel your conscience stabbing you with raw emotional pain and believe yourself to be entirely responsible and utterly alone. All of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced these feelings of guilt. Most of us are mature enough to deal with the situation, put it behind us and carry on. However, there are others unable to step out of this all encompassing emotion, becoming stressed, regretful and depressed. Children, especially find guilt hard to deal with.
Guilt has had a negative press; always seen as something bad. Nevertheless, guilt helps us navigate through life; identifying the difference between right and wrong. It is our conscience speaking to us. The feelings it evokes are so painful that it encourages us either, to take action to change the situation or to never to do the guilt inducing act again. It is the emotional equivalent of a child touching a hot saucepan; the resulting pain ensures the act will never be repeated.
Feelings of guilt a child has when they have done something wrong are a vital part in the growth of their own moral code. Children have impressionable minds and absorb these codes from those around them, especially their parents. However, unlike their parents they do not have the structures to deal with this difficult emotion.
These feelings, if left unchecked can have negative consequences, like introversion, lack of initiative, loss of self-esteem. Childhood is the foundation upon which we build our lives and unresolved guilt can drastically change the persona of the future adult. Next time you feel guilty about something take a minute to reflect on where you learnt the values behind this feeling and whose voice is it in your head telling you what is right or wrong.
It is the responsibility of the parents to explain the meaning of guilt to their children, as well as ways of coping with it and getting on with life. The steps given below can show how you can help your child deal with this emotion.
Ten Steps for Dealing with Guilt.
1. People are never perfect; they are bound to make mistakes. However, the aim is to be able to learn from those mistakes, rather than seeing them as the end of everything.
2. Tell your child that they can forgive themselves and try to make amends. Remind them that overindulging in guilt will only deepen their misery. Guilt always seeks to be released through forgiveness.
3. Encourage your child to confess their misdemeanours in front of somebody they consider morally significant, such as their teacher or yourself. This will help them to ease their burden and move on. However, it is good for them to promise out loud never to do it again.
4. Discover the reason behind their guilt by talking about it. The more they try to hide it within themselves, the more it will hurt them. Talking can help reduce something that feels large and unbearable into something smaller and manageable.
5. Remember, what is done can never be undone. Guilt can never change the past, no matter how bad the child feels feel.
6. Your child can share their guilt with your close friends. They can definitely help and make useful suggestions.
7. If the guilt concerns a particular person, encourage an apology and if possible, try to make amends. In return that person might offer forgiveness.
8. Teach your child to watch their speech and actions in future to make sure that mistake is never repeated.
9. Offer the gift of optimism. Worries will only worsen the existing problems, so it is always better to invest time and energy in correcting the misdeed, rather than brooding over it.
10. Finally, teach the value of communication. It is better to show the problem the light of day than bury it in a deep dark place.
Related articles from our experts
Fiona Goldman, BACP Registered CounsellorJanuary 17th, 2017
Julie CrowleyJanuary 18th, 2017
Tom KeelyJanuary 16th, 2017
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.