Shame versus Guilt


What is shame?

Shame is a feeling of embarrassment and humiliation that makes us feel fundamentally flawed. Shame becomes harmful when it is internalized and results in a harsh perception of self and feelings of worthlessness.

What is guilt?

Guilt is a feeling that happens when a person believes or realizes that they have done something against their values and standards. Guilt encourages the repair of relationships and discourages behaviors that negatively impact relationships with others.


This is the difference between thinking something is wrong with me versus I did something wrong.

Sometimes, when we want our children to learn something or our child needs to be disciplined, we may unintentionally get this wrong. Our focus when teaching or disciplining children should be on making sure the child understands the connection between their behavior and the harm that they have caused to the other person. That feeling is guilt—remorse and acknowledgement that their behavior was wrong. Children do need to realize and feel remorse when they make wrong choices. This is healthy. Children who feel guilt and remorse have EMPATHY. They can think about others and realize that their actions impact others!


When we shame and humiliate our children, they feel inadequate and worthless. Remember, shame brings about feelings of “something is wrong with ME.” “I am not good.” When children and people feel shame, their instinctual response is to hide and isolate from others. Children feel disconnected from those around them and they do not make that connection that it is their behavior that hurt someone—they believe that it is their person that is the problem. Who they are becomes the problem—not what they have done. When children experience shame over and over again in childhood, they lose that sense of safety. Our brains need to feel love and acceptance to build strong relationships with ourselves and others. Shame invokes fear and self-hate. When children are protected and feel safe, they learn to have positive and thriving relationships with others. When children feel shame and self-hate, they learn to fear others and cling to isolation.


We want children who have empathy, show remorse for wrongdoing, and take responsibility for their actions and behaviors. We want children who will make appropriate choices even when not directly in our supervision. So, how do we move away from shame-based parenting and teach children to take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes in a healthy way?


Here are some examples and solutions when you may have accidentally shamed your child:

  1. When you are making EVERY choice for your child—Pro Tip: Children need to have some autonomy and choice in their life. These can be age-appropriate—but kids need to feel like “I can do ____ on my own. I\’m capable!”
  2. When you criticize a choice they make with “What were you thinking or I can\’t believe you would do something like that?”— Pro Tip: Talk to your child. If the choice is not a good idea, let them know that this choice may have some negative consequences—and sometimes, you may have to let them continue with that choice and learn from life.
  3. When you set unrealistic expectations like wanting your 2, 3, or 4 year old to be able to communicate in words EVERY time they are upset, bored, or tired—Pro Tip: Set expectations based on age, development, and individual differences. Some 4 year-old kids may be able to articulate their feelings calmly and have a mature conversation, while other 7 year old kids may need to cry a while and be comforted in times of stress—learn your child.

Take the time to understand why your children are behaving in a certain way. Ask questions, observe, and pay attention. As parents and caregivers, our words and actions have a lot of influence and power in our children’s lives. It can either build them up or tear them down.

Partnering with you,