Guilt can be good for your kid

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - PERRI KLASS, M.D.

Guilt can be a com­pli­cated el­e­ment in the par­ent-child equa­tion; we feel guilty, they feel guilty, we may make them feel guilty and then feel guilty about that.

But certain kinds of guilt are a healthy part of child de­vel­op­ment.

Tina Malti, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto who has stud­ied the de­vel­op­ment of guilt in chil­dren, con­sid­ers guilt an emo­tion sim­i­lar to em­pa­thy.

“Moral guilt is healthy, good to de­velop,” she said. “It helps the child re­frain from ag­gres­sion, an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour.”

A child who has made an­other child cry might have an em­pathic re­ac­tion, she said, and feel bad be­cause the other child is sad. Or he might feel guilty be­cause what­ever he did to the other child vi­o­lated his own stan­dards of right and wrong. “Those two re­ac­tions can be en­tirely in­de­pen­dent, or can go to­gether.”

There is a de­vel­op­men­tal path­way for guilt, Malti said; very young chil­dren may cry if they break a toy, but chil­dren do not have enough un­der­stand­ing of other peo­ple’s per­spec­tive to ex­pe­ri­ence the more com­plex emo­tion of guilt un­til around age six. By then, she said, most chil­dren re­port guilt in re­sponse to trans­gres­sions, and that can help them treat other peo­ple kindly.

“There’s lots of ev­i­dence that healthy guilt pro­motes chil­dren’s proso­cial be­hav­iour,” she said.

Count this as an­other area where our par­ents and grand­par­ents prob­a­bly had it eas­ier than par­ents do to­day — they prob­a­bly didn’t worry too much about mak­ing their chil­dren feel guilty. They might even have in­voked the S-word — shame — as in, “You should be ashamed of your­self.”

Guilt is the in­ter­nal emo­tion, what you feel in­side when you know you’ve done wrong or caused harm. Shame is ex­ter­nal; it’s what you feel be­fore the judg­ment of other mem­bers of your fam­ily or your so­ci­ety who know of your trans­gres­sion. But that dis­tinc­tion is a lit­tle sim­plis­tic, said Roy Richard Grinker, a pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity, be­cause “in the ab­sence of an au­di­ence, we can feel shame just imag­in­ing it.”

Part of grow­ing up in your cul­ture is “a kind of in­ter­nal­iza­tion of the val­ues that a so­ci­ety holds,” he said.

For Colin Leach, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut, both guilt and shame are loaded terms.

“What re­ally mat­ters is the way adults and also kids think about mis­steps or mishaps,” he said, “how much they be­lieve they them­selves or their re­la­tion­ships can be im­proved with ef­fort.”

Dr. He­len Eg­ger, chair of the de­part­ment of child and ado­les­cent psy­chi­a­try at NYU Lan­gone Health, said that guilt re­flects what is called “the­ory of mind,” that is, a child’s devel­op­ing un­der­stand­ing that other peo­ple have feel­ings and a point of view; “chil­dren have to have de­vel­oped a the­ory of mind, self and oth­ers, to be able to feel guilt.”

And rarely, if a child doesn’t de­velop the ca­pac­ity to feel guilt, she said, “when you have ly­ing or lack of guilt, the child seems to have a re­duced ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy.”

Guilt is part of chil­dren’s nor­mal de­vel­op­ment, and we don’t ac­tu­ally want to see chil­dren grow up with­out it, but we also worry that they may judge them­selves too harshly, or feel re­spon­si­ble for things that are well be­yond their pow­ers (the clas­sic one would be the child who blames him­self for his par­ents’ fight­ing, or even di­vorc­ing).

So how can par­ents nur­ture the de­vel­op­ment of con­science and moral feel­ings, but avoid weigh­ing chil­dren down with dark feel­ings of doom? Guilt when it’s con­struc­tive should give a child an ap­pro­pri­ate sense of power and agency, a re­al­is­tic de­ter­mi­na­tion to do things dif­fer­ently. Fo­cus on spe­cific ac­tions, and not on the child’s char­ac­ter; the mes­sage is not that there is some­thing wrong with the child, but that the child chose to do some­thing wrong, with certain re­sults.

Malti talked about guilt “in­duc­tion,” in which par­ents ex­plain the con­se­quences of ac­tions very clearly: “Your sib­ling is cry­ing, and this is be­cause you have dam­aged his toy.”

As a clin­i­cian, she said, she has worked with chil­dren who showed a lack of guilt, and in­duc­tion can be very help­ful. On the other hand, she has also worked with chil­dren weighed down with dys­func­tional guilt, in which they feel re­spon­si­ble for the suf­fer­ings of other peo­ple well out­side their con­trol.

“If par­ents are fight­ing,” Malti said, “it’s im­por­tant to say how this is not re­lated to the child’s be­hav­iour.”

Chil­dren have to be able to look at their be­hav­iour and their re­la­tion­ships, to un­der­stand what is ac­tu­ally their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“They have to have an ac­cu­rate gauge,” Leach said. “Feel­ing a lit­tle bad about it can mo­ti­vate us, but ret­ro­spec­tively ru­mi­nat­ing about where we’ve fallen short or be­ing par­a­lyzed by that tends not to be pro­duc­tive and tends to be re­ally psy­cho­log­i­cally painful and harm­ful.”

DAN DELONG, NYT FILE PHOTO

Guilt is part of chil­dren’s nor­mal de­vel­op­ment, and we don’t ac­tu­ally want to see chil­dren grow up with­out it, but we also worry that they may judge them­selves too harshly, or feel re­spon­si­ble for things that are well be­yond their pow­ers.

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