When you do something wrong, what do you feel? Is it guilt or shame? Two very different experiences, but unfortunately intermixed in our language and culture.

When your child does something wrong, what do they feel? Can you tell? And which one is more destructive than the other?

Guilt is about what you did. Guilt is about behavior, and typically felt in the hands or feet. It is not a bad feeling (there are no bad feelings), but lets you know that you have done something you don’t think was right. Guilt lasts for a while, but can be dealt with by making amends or forgiveness. Shame is about who you are. Shame is about the character and worth of the person. Am I good or bad? Shame is usually felt in the gut or chest and is more entrenched and much more difficult to resolve. Shame can be carried for years and made a part of a person’s identity and contribute to very destructive behaviors.

If someone does one thing wrong, does that make them a bad person? No. However, some people, based on the events of their life, believe that if they have done something wrong – anything, even one thing – that that means they are a bad person. Shame.

Shame often leads to a sense of worthlessness. When someone feels shame (not just ashamed), they can feel hopeless, unloved, and unredeemable. They often resort to destructive behaviors that lead them away from the family because they already feel like they should not be there. Shame can be very damaging to a child’s sense of worth. If your child says they feel worthless, they are telling you they feel shame and feel like and bad person.

Perpetual guilt is guilt that lingers, even though forgiveness has been given or amends have been made. This is not good and could turn into something worse. Oftentimes, teenagers feel like they have done so many bad things, and do feel guilty, but do not know how to come back from it and are afraid to ask.

There is so much about shame that needs to be understood. Perhaps another post. Make sure your child has a correct understanding of these terms. And make sure you understand how your child responds to situations with guilt or shame.

If you, parent, struggle with shame from your own past, please do something about it. John Bradshaw’s Healing The Shame That Binds You is a good place to start.


Todd has been a therapist for over 20 years in a variety of settings. An unconventional therapist who tells the truth, Todd has taught undergraduate and graduate level courses, and authored his first book, Simply Relate.

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