Guilt can be a very useful emotion

Guilt has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. People talk about being “plagued by guilt” as if guilt were some kind of mental illness.

Guilt has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. People talk about being “plagued by guilt” as if guilt were some kind of mental illness.

But in fact, guilt is a very useful emotion. People who are entirely guilt-free have no constraints on their behavior. They can cheerfully commit all kinds of mayhem, from bullying to petty vandalism all the way up to rape, robbery and murder, and never feel a qualm: we call them sociopaths.

Guilt, then, plays an important role in keeping civilization civil. But where does it come from? And how does it interact with that other important civilizing mechanism that scientists call “effortful self-control”—the ability to suppress impulsive behavior that might hurt yourself or others?

New York Times science writer John Tierney, who recently took a look at some of the research being carried out into guilt, quotes Grazyna Kochanska, who studies children’s development at the University of Iowa, as saying that children typically start to feel guilty in their second year of life. Some are just naturally more prone to guilt, and some are influenced to feel guilty by their parents and other factors.

“Children respond with acute and intense tension and negative emotions when they are tempted to misbehave, or even anticipate violating norms and rules,” Dr. Kochanska told Tierney. “They remember, often subconsciously, how awful they have felt in the past.”

Literally awful: children often describe guilt as a “sinking feeling in the tummy.”

The results of Dr. Kochanksa’s latest research have just been published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In her experiments, a researcher showed a toy to a toddler, explained that it was something very special that the researcher had had since childhood, and asked the toddler to be “very careful” with it. Then the researcher let the child handle it—and because it was secretly rigged to do so, it immediately fell apart.

The researcher reacted mildly, simply saying, “Oh, my.” And then he or she observed for a full minute, recording every reaction. Some children squirmed, some avoided the researcher’s gaze, some hunched their shoulders, some hugged themselves, some covered their face with their hands.

Dr. Kochanska tracked those children for five years, and found that the two-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the experiment had fewer behavioral problems.

That held true even for children who scored low on measures of effortful self-control, which indicates that strong feelings of guilt can make-up for a lack of self-control.

Similarly, those with strong self-control can still behave well even if they lack strong feelings of guilt. It’s the combination of low guilt and low self-control that spells trouble.

So what can parents do about it, Tierney asks in his column, pointing out that nobody has been able to link any particular pattern of parenting to children’s levels of guilt?

June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University who has studied guilt in both children and adults, had some advice for him.

She points out there’s a difference between shame (the feeling that you’re a bad person because of bad behavior) and guilt, which is focused on behavior. However, small children don’t understand that difference. Tell them they’ve done something bad, and they hear you saying that they’re a bad child.

To avoid that pitfall, Tangney recommends focusing not only on whatever the child did that was wrong, but how the child can make amends: apologizing and cleaning up after a spill, for instance.

This “atonement strategy,” as Tierney calls it, was in fact part of those broken-toy experiments: after the minute of observation, the children were asked what had happened, and then were told the toy could be easily fixed. The researcher left with the broken toy and returned within half a minute with an intact replica of it, took the blame for the damage, reassured the children it wasn’t their fault and pointed out the toy was as good as new.

Tangney’s advice is no doubt excellent, but as every parent knows, perfectly balancing guilt, shame, remorse, apologies, understanding, atonement, cuddles, punishment, tears, shouting, joking and all the other elements of our relationships with our children is as difficult as juggling flaming torches while standing on stilts (as some buskers I saw recently in Quebec City were doing).

And when we drop one of those torches?

We feel guilty, naturally.

Some things never change.

Edward Willett is a Regina freelance writer. E-mail comments or questions to

Just Posted

Springbrook Skate Park gets financial boost

Province approves $125,000 grant for proposed skate park

ReThink Red Deer gets thumbs up from city on pollinator barn structure

Group is hoping to get a $40,000 building grant

Team Alberta athletes arrive in Red Deer on Saturday for pre-games orientation

Excitement is building with less than a month to go, says Team Alberta spokesperson

UPDATED: STARS Lottery is back

Lacombe STARS patient tells his story

Former Red Deer man named Mr. Gay Canada

To compete in Mr. Gay World

Trudeau says politicians shouldn’t prey on Canadians’ fears

The Prime Minister was speaking at a townhall in Ontario

‘Prince of Pot’ Marc Emery accused of sexual assault, harassment

Emery denied the allegations, but a Toronto woman says she is not the only one speaking out

Asteroids are smacking Earth twice as often as before

The team counted 29 craters that were no older than 290 million years

Canada’s arrest of Huawei exec an act of ‘backstabbing,’ Chinese ambassador says

China has called Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou ‘politically motivated’

In limbo: Leftover embryos challenge clinics, couples

Some are outright abandoned by people who quit paying storage fees and other couples struggle with tough decisions

Netflix rejects request to remove Lac-Megantic images from ‘Bird Box’

At least two shows on Netflix’s Canadian platform briefly use actual footage of the 2013 tragedy

Teen vaping is an epidemic: US government

E-cigarettes are now the top high-risk substance used by teenagers, outpacing cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana

‘I never said there was no collusion,’ Trump lawyer says

President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani says he has ‘never said there was no collusion’

Body of Canadian miner found after African kidnapping

Kirk Woodman’s body was discovered 100 kilometres from the site where he worked for Progress Mineral Mining Company in Burkina Faso

Most Read