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We all know that natural consequences is the best tool when dealing with inappropriate behaviour. However, one of natural consequences of doing something bad to another person is feeling guilty for what you have done.

My intuition tells me that guilt cannot be used as discipline tool, so my first question is: am I right? I have an impression that using guilt as a form of punishment leads to children having pshychological problems, and even neurosis. But I have never seen proper studies about it, so I would be grateful, if you could recommend me some, if it's really true.

My second question is more practical. How can I help a child to overcome the feeling of guilt? I don't say the children don't need to feel guilty at all, but there must be a moment when they get over it, and an adult should be there to help.

Note: this question might seem a bit too abstract, because I am asking it in advance. My child is only three, so it's still unrelevant to her. But I feel that the answer will be useful for me in future.

Edit: I am very grateful for the answers explaining the difference between guilt and shame. Don't you think that these feelings are mixed in a child? I am also concerned about sensitive children, those who do not need to be told twice and tend to analyse their behaviour a lot.

I also doubt the effectiveness of feeling guilty to prevent repetition of bad behaviour, as it doesn't fade of quickly enough and one can get used to it.

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I have to agree with @GentlePurpleRain's shorter and more elegant answer.

The best way to protect your child from feeling guilt is to avoid teaching him any moral standards, i.e. don't teach him the difference between good and evil, and don't teach him self-reflection or self-evaluation.

Guilt is a natural result of going against one's morals. It promotes prosocial behavior (good for everyone.) Guilt shows a sensitivity to the feelings of others. People behave well to avoid feeling guilt, and feel guilt when they do something that hurts someone, and makes them feel remorseful. It is a moral emotion.

Imagine a person who doesn't feel guilt. One such person can do a lot of harm to a lot of people, depending on how significant their lack of empathy is.

Moral standards represent an individual’s knowledge and internalization of moral norms and conventions. People’s moral standards are dictated in part by universal moral laws, and in part by culturally specific proscriptions. ...[T]here is broad social consensus that such behaviors are “wrong” (e.g., interpersonal violence, criminal behavior, lying, cheating, stealing).

The morally relevant "negative" emotions are shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Several positive moral emotions are elevation, gratitude, the morally relevant experience of pride, and empathy.

As the self reflects upon the self, moral self-conscious emotions provide immediate punishment (or reinforcement) of behavior. In effect, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride function as an emotional moral barometer... When we “do the right thing,” positive feelings of pride and self-approval are likely to result.

If we accept that guilt is normal and even good, then why does it get such a bad reputation? Probably because many people use guilt and shame synonymously. One possible difference between them is that

when describing shame-inducing situations, respondents expressed more concern with others’ evaluations of the self. In contrast, when describing guilt experiences, respondents were more concerned with their effect on others. This difference in “egocentric” versus “other-oriented” concerns isn’t surprising given that shame involves a focus on the self, whereas guilt relates to a specific behavior.

Shame is considered more painful because one’s core self is at stake, threatened by feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, and exposure (whether real of imagined.)

Guilt, of the other hand, is less painful because the feeling is focused on a specific behavior, not the self. Rather than needing to defend one’s self, people feeling guilt consider their behavior and its consequences. Guilt is more adaptive and beneficial than shame. Guilt leads to apologies and attempts at restoration. Shame leads to separation and denial.

What you might want to do is help your child deal with shame, not guilt. But that is a different question.

Guilt and Children
Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior

  • I really loved your explanation of difference between shame/guilt. I am non-native and didn't know this. – May Jul 21 '15 at 20:40
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I'm not sure what you mean by "using guilt as a form of punishment". If you mean that you intentionally make the child feel guilty for something they've done, then I agree that that strategy is likely to cause emotional issues.

If you simply mean that a child misbehaves, and then feels guilty because they know their behaviour was "wrong", then I think the guilt can be a very effective form of "punishment." In fact, in many situations, if you are aware that a child feels guilty for what they have done, further punishment is probably not necessary. It may be helpful after the fact (not in the moment) to discuss the situation, and express to the child why the behaviour was unacceptable, but in most situations, further punishment when the child already feels guilty will only serve to damage their relationship with you, and will not help to reinforce anything.

We should also make a distinction between guilt and shame. Everyone defines these differently, but one definition I have found very helpful is as follows:

Guilt is the feeling that I have done something bad.
Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person.

Working with those definitions, I don't think there is any need to "help a child overcome the feeling of guilt." If they feel guilty about something they've done, it's probably justified, and will probably be overcome with time.

If, however, the child is feeling shame due to their behaviour, intervention on your part is probably required. They will need to be reassured that they are loved, and that even though they did a bad thing, they are not a bad person. A reminder that you will love them "no matter what" can be very helpful in helping them realize that they are not defined by their behaviour. Shame is not something that goes away easily, and will probably require a lot of reassurance on your part, but it can be overcome.

  • I mean exactly what you describe in second paragraph and am concerned about it. – May Jul 21 '15 at 18:58
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    I wouldn't worry too much. If the child feels guilty for having done something wrong, that's natural and healthy. (Someone who didn't feel guilty would be a psychopath or something similar.) If it begins to affect their self-image or self-worth, then I think they're feeling shame (using the definitions above). In that case, getting at the underlying issue is important (there must be more than just this one incident that's causing them to feel this way). – GentlePurpleRain Jul 21 '15 at 19:02
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Guilt cannot be a natural consequence.

Guilt is a negative feeling resulting from knowledge that one has done something wrong. The knowledge of right and wrong is taught by parents, other authority figures, and society. Until this standard is learned, there is no capacity for guilt. Thus, guilt is a learned consequence, not a natural one.

Guilt cannot be used as a discipline tool.

This is because, as other answers have alluded to, one cannot make another feel guilty. One can make another feel ashamed, but guilt is self-imposed.

Regarding the last part of your question, a good way to deal with feelings of guilt and/or shame is to redirect the experience to a constructive behavioral lesson.

"What did we learn?"
"That doing x is wrong."
"How do we resolve the situation?"
"Undo x" or "apologize for x"
"How do we apply what we learned?"
"Instead of doing x, do y."

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