Shame versus Guilt

When parents give their children negative emotional messages that focus on who the child is rather than his or her behaviour, they unwittingly dig a pit of shame so deep and so wide, it may take the child a lifetime to climb out of it.

“You do it deliberately to annoy me”

“I’m going to ring grandma to tell her how awful you are”

“You are as stupid as your father”

“Go ahead and try it, you’ll just fail like you always do”

“Why are you so clumsy?”

“I’m so angry with you I can’t stand the sight of you”

Negative and emotional messages that attack a child’s sense of self and what she can do, leave their mark and can lead to mental health problems into adolescence and adulthood.

When parents approach a child’s mistaken behaviour at the level of the behaviour, they say things like…

“I’m really disappointed that you kicked the ball at the laundry window, especially as I warned you about it five minutes ago.”

“What might have been a better choice?”

“When you and your brother argue, I feel so frustrated.”

A little bit of guilt is healthy and adaptive. Children learn what is acceptable behaviour when parents focus on communicating what they didn’t like about the behaviour and how the child might do better next time. Prolonged ranting, raving, lecturing, and anger cause excessive guilt which induces shame.

One of my colleagues saw an interaction between a parent and a child the other day. The mother screamed at him “how many times do I have to tell you not to do that” and she walked away from him. The little boy, no older than 3, put his head down and banged his head with both fists. He then went and sat behind a park bench and cried.

Was he feeling shame or guilt do you think? Is he learning that he can’t rely on the adults in his life to help organise his thoughts and feelings, and more importantly his behaviours?


The following is an excerpt from the book by Dr Daniel A Hughes & Kim S Golding (2012) “Creating loving attachments: Parenting with PACE to nurture confidence and security in the troubled child” (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

I believe it is the best piece of writing on the difference between shame and guilt available.

An exploration of the emotions of shame and guilt provides excellent examples of the value in accepting the person and evaluating only her behaviour. Shame is an emotion that pertains to the self, arising from the sense that “I am bad” or “I am unlovable”. When the self is experienced in this way, the resulting shame is very stressful and very painful. Because of this, many people try to avoid feelings of shame by either denying the feelings themselves or by denying the behaviours that activated such shameful feelings. The former is reflected in the response by children saying “I don’t care! It doesn’t bother me!” when confronted with a behaviour and its consequence. The latter is reflected in children saying “I didn’t do it!”. Shame therefore tends to elicit lying (I didn’t do it), making excuses (it was an accident), blaming the other person (she took my game), or minimizing the consequence of the behaviour (she’s not hurt badly, she’s exaggerating how much it hurts!). Shame is such a painful emotion that an individual confronted with her behaviour will avoid thinking about it. Her response is often one of rage: “Don’t talk about it! I don’t want to think about it! You’re bringing it up because you want to make me mad!”
Shame, therefore, is a self-centred emotion. It functions to protect the self from perceived attacks from others. In shame we hide and avoid eye contact with the other, leading to isolation. It interferes with efforts to resolve a conflict and to repair a relationship. Shame is thus likely to decrease attachment behaviours, such as coming to the parent for support in response to a problem.
In contrast to shame, guilt is an emotion that is associated with one’s behaviour. In guilt, the person concludes: “I did something wrong. I broke a rule. I hurt another person.” Unlike shame where the person tries to deny the behaviour that triggered the sense of being bad, with guilt the person has the opposite tendency. She wants to repair the relationship caused by the behaviour. As a result, the person is motivated to acknowledge the behaviour, to apologise and possibly to engage in behaviour that is meant to restore the relationship. The person finds that in openly acknowledging the behaviour the guilt begins to decrease. Guilt is an other-centred emotion. Guilt exists in response to the perception that one has hurt the other through one’s behaviour. Guilt is associated with empathy, whereas shame is associated with reduced empathy for the other. To facilitate empathy and to encourage the development of a child’s conscience, it is beneficial to reduce the child’s shame, leaving room for the development of guilt.
Shame precedes guilt in the developing child. When you scold your toddler it is normal that she will experience shame. She will try to hide, become motionless and speechless. When you comfort and reconnect with the toddler, the experience of shame reduces. It is then possible to redirect or briefly mention the reason for the scolding. The toddler will be able to think about what she did and make sense of it. In this way your child begins to perceive the consequences of her actions, learns to experience empathy for the other and learn to experience guilt for the other’s distress. Repairing the relationship through reconnection provides the child with the psychological reality that she is unconditionally accepted and loved even if a given behaviour is not. The child experiences the relationship as being more important than disapproval and conflict over the behaviour.
If a parent does not comfort and reconnect with his child, shame becomes too great. This child is not likely to begin to develop guilt over her behaviour. She remains in shame over her parent’s criticism of her behaviour. She is convinced that her parent is dissatisfied with her as a person.
By communicating to your child “I’m not angry with you, I’m angry at what you did”, you are helping to elicit guilt and not shame, providing the foundation for the development of empathy. Sometimes, however, the results are not so positive. This might be because your anger at the behaviour may be too pervasive or long-lasting. Alternatively, you may avoid repairing the relationship and reconnecting with your child. Sometimes parents use relationship withdrawal as a means of discipline, by not talking to the child or sending her away from them. This, too, is likely to elicit shame rather than guilt. Too much of this type of discipline is likely to compromise the development of empathy.
Researchers have demonstrated that continuing to experience the emotion of shame is associated with various psychological problems. According to Tangney and Dearing, these include depression, anxiety, eating disorder symptoms, subclinical sociopathy, and low self esteem. The emotion of guilt, however, is not associated with any psychological problems. When a person is said to have “too much guilt” the emotion experienced is more likely to experience shame.
Since the locus of shame is the self and the locus of guilt is behaviour, it is understandable that a person would deny shame but can acknowledge and address behaviours associated with guilt. Behaviour is more readily changed than aspects of the self. If I feel a sense of badness about who I am, and this is not easily changed, then I am more likely to respond with denial or rage. This is a natural response when we experience attacks on our sense of self, our identity. We are not being accepted for who we are.


Narelle Smith




Categories: Managing Mistaken Behaviour


1 reply


  1. Why punishment “sucks” | Hands, Hearts and Minds

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