Lesson 6 of 7 - Learn how to parent effectively

Help Your Kids Manage
Shame and Guilt

Did your parents
teach you how?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

colorbar.gif (1095 bytes)

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/shame.htm

Revised 04-11-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost. 

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 6 - learn how to parent effectively without neglecting yourself. The range and scope of major U.S. social problems suggests that most parents are failing at this.

      This article summarizes family-adult options for (1) preventing excessive shame and guilt in young kids, and (2) managing them if they already exist.

     The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it    

  • online Lessons 1 thru Lesson 6, part 1

  • overviews of the psychological wounds of
    excessive shame and excessive or chronic guilts


      This brief You Tube video sets the stage for what you're about to read:

What's the Problem?

      Shame is the personal feeling and belief "I'm inept, stupid, worthless, and unlovable:" Guilt is the normal mental-emotional reaction to believing "I broke a rule / made a mistake." Guilt usually amplifies shame ("I made a mistake - so I'm bad"). Shame and guilt feel the same, but have different roots and different "cures,"

      Moderate ("normal") shame and guilt help us make healthy decisions and avoid or correct mistakes Excessive shame and chronic, excessive guilts can seriously cripple personal happiness, relationships, achievements, and health.

      The roots of shame and guilt begin in early childhood. Healthy, informed family adults can foster healthy pride and self-love in their dependent kids. Psychologically-wounded family adults are at high risk of unintentionally passing on excessive shame and guilts to their vulnerable youngsters.


      There is a LOT here, so expect to take many hours to absorb and discuss it all. To get the big picture. I suggest you read this whole article before following any underlined links,.

      To strengthen young kids' self esteem, new and veteran family adults need to..

_ 1) Review how early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma) promote up to six psychological wounds in infants and young kids;

_ 2) Review what these wounds usually mean;

_ 3) Understand how the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle passes down the generations, and then commit to protecting vulnerable kids from its toxic effects;

_ 4) Be steadily guided by your respective true Selves, and _ manage your own shame and guilt effectively (Lesson 1). Without this, the options below probably won't work.

5) Learn, model, and teach family adults and kids how to communicate and problem-solve effectively.

_  6) Use this knowledge to learn how to discipline kids in a way that steadily nourishes their self esteem and minimizes guilts.

      More suggestions to help family adults manage kids' shame and guilts:

_ 7) Teach kids their rights as dignified persons, and how to use them to (a) assert their needs with anyone, and to (b) set and enforce boundaries with disrespectful. critical, and aggressive adults and kids

_ 8)  Show family adults how to give "dodge-proof" praise, and raise everyone's awareness about your family's rules about praising each other. Lack of merited, sincere praise and appreciation promotes shame in everyone!

_ 9) Model and teach how to appreciate significant achievements and feel non-egotistical pride without guilt;

_ 10) Model and teach how to make self-criticism productive rather than shaming. Do you know how to do this?

_ 11) Model and teach how to avoid perfectionism and unrealistic expectations.

_ 12) Model and teach kids to see mistakes as learning opportunities, not shameful failures;

      More suggestions to help family adults manage kids' shame and guilts:

_ 13) Using age-appropriate language and cartoons, teach older kids about personality subselves and their true Self. Help them begin to learn how to identify and "talk" with subselves - specially ones that cause stress. like their Inner Critic, Perfectionist, Worrier, Pessimist, and Shamed and Guilty inner children. Tailor the ideas in lesson 1, part 3 to fit your situation.

14) Model and teach kids how to avoid shaming themselves. Help young people realize they can "talk back" to - and retrain - their well-intentioned Inner Critic and Perfectionist subselves. You'll be more successful at this after you've done it yourself

_ 15) All family adults accept full responsibility for maintaining a high-nurturance environment for all members and visitors. Use lessons 1 thru 6 to help you do this.

_ 16) Model what self-respect, self-love, and self-confidence look like and sound like in calm and stressful situations.

_ 17) Periodically (e.g. on kids' birthdays) ,check each child for symptoms of inherited psychological wounds. If you find significant symptoms, refine your assessment: use these criteria to test for excessive shame and guilt If a child has these symptoms, see the extra parenting options below.

+ + +.

      Note the difference between "preventing and reducing shame" and "increasing self-respect, pride, and self love." Which long-term goal feels better?

Convert Kids' Shame into Self Respect, Pride, and Self Love

      If a child in your life has too many symptoms of excessive shame and guilt, what can you do?

_ 18) Accept that the child has been raised in a low-nurturance (dysfunctional) family. This means key family adults have inherited and unintentionally passed on significant [wounds + unawareness].

      To help shame-based (and fear-based) children heal, family adults must commit to intentionally raising the nurturance level of their related homes and extended family by following suggestions 1 thru 17 above, This must start with the primary parenting adults. It's essential that family adults and any helpers they use (like counselors) agree - the primary problem is not the child, it is the dysfunctional family system.

_ 19) Identify significant shaming behaviors by family adults and older siblings, and work to stop them - e.g.



predicting failure





overfocusing on mistakes



unrealistic expectations


discounting successes

treating other kids better


comparing with
 ideal children

never praising



or no touching

      Replacing these shaming behaviors with actions that promote self-esteem begins with raising everyone's self and mutual awareness.

_ 20) Listen empathically to your child(ren)! Intentionally make it safe for them to be aware of and describe their feelings and needs with other family members  Help them to learn how to assert needs and limits (boundaries) respectfully. Did your adults do this for you?

21) Talk honestly about your own limits, failures, and shame; and how you manage them. Balance that by talking about your talents, achievements, and self respect.

_  22) Add your own ideas about helping shame-based kids attain stable, healthy self love, pride, and self-confidence.

      We've just reviewed choices that family adults have for reducing shame, and promoting healthy self-respect, pride, and confidence in their young kids. Pause, breathe, and recall why you began reading this. What have you learned so far? .

      The second half of this vital long-term parenting project is...

      Help Young Kids Manage Their Guilts

      Recall: shame and guilt feel the same, but have different roots and are managed differently Family adults' target here is to help their young people manage shame and guilt effectively. Doing this is a family project, not an individual one!

      Project goals: help kids (1) reduce excessive and chronic guilts, and (2) avoid new unjustified guilts. "Excessive" guilt promotes shame, and invites social scorn, exclusion, inferiority, and isolation.

      The suggestions below are for new parents, and for adults parenting an overly-guilty child. They add to the options above.

_ 23) Review this overview of guilt  Then...

_ 24) Invite all family adults and older kids to learn...

_ what causes guilt,

_ how it differs from shame,

_ how to end and avoid unjustified guilts, and...

_ how to use guilt productively.

_  25) Intentionally evolve a healthy home and family "guilt policy." A policy is a set of values, attitudes, and beliefs about something that guides decisions and behavior. Let's define a "healthy personal guilt policy" as a set of values, beliefs, and rules like these:

  • I'm OK (vs. "bad") if I feel guilty. Guilt is a normal, healthy reaction to feeling I've done something wrong (broken someone's rules).

  • I have the right to express my guilty thoughts and feelings to others without apology or expecting them to "fix" me.

  • I have the right to get clear on what rules I feel I've broken, and who made the rules.

  • If I'm not clear on what our relationship or family rules are, I have the right to ask for clarification.

  • If I don't like or agree with the rules, I have the right to negotiate rules that feel more reasonable to me.

  • It's better to express my emotions and assert my needs honestly as I feel them, rather then hint, repress, numb out, procrastinate, and/or expect others to mind-read me,

  • It's good to stay aware that guilt and shame feel the same, but are caused and reduced differently.

How do these sample rules compare to your personal guilt policy? To the policy in your home and family?

      Option - discuss this concept with other family adults, and clarify what your personal and household guilt policies are. They have been silently shaping the guilt policies of each minor child among you. Work toward evolving and living by a shared "healthy guilt policy" as a fundamental way of helping all of you manage your guilts. Note that "no policy" is a policy...

      The unspoken rules about guilt that you adults model and teach will strongly influence your kids' success at using their guilts constructively or not. If your family guilt policy promotes unwarranted or excessive guilt, it's unlikely you can help your kids make lasting changes.

      Consider that most kids - specially young ones - don't have the concepts or language to discuss their guilts or negotiate the rules that cause them. That implies that to minimize the risk of toxic guilts and shame, you adults must pay patient, conscious attention to what your behaviors are teaching your kids about shame, self-esteem, pride, and guilt. Did your caregivers do this for you?

      Note the opportunity of evolving and practicing a family policy on personal and family pride and self-love and respect. Most people and families already have these policies, but may not be conscious of or discuss them. Can you articulate your personal policy about these essential resources? Can your other family adults? Can your kids?

_ 26)  Identify any family members whose behaviors promote chronic and excessive guilts in your young people. Invite them to become aware of _ your evolving family guilt policy, and _ the impact of their behaviors. Usually guilt-promoters are unaware of being ruled by false selves.

_ 27)  If your child is old enough, coach her or him to (a) befriend their Guilty Inner Child and (b) bring her/him to live in the present (c) in the loving company of your Nurturer subself. Help the Guilty Child to feel welcomed, accepted, and valued by all other subselves. See this for more detail.

      What did you just learn?


      This article is part of online Lesson 6 - learn to parent effectively. The article proposes that a vital task for family adults is helping young children learn how to manage their shame and guilts by...

  • balancing healthy shame with self-respect, self confidence, and self love; and...

  • intentionally releasing and avoiding outdated and unwarranted guilts.

The article summarizes 27 options to help reach these long-term parenting goals. One option is evolving and using a family "guilt policy" like the example above.

      Family adults and supporters need to work at this task because a high majority of typical kids and adults inherit crippling shame and guilts. Few adults and no kids know this or what to do about it.

      A key requisite for all family adults is learning to recognize and manage their own psychological wounds, including shame and guilt. Lesson 1 here offers an effective way to do this.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

Share/Bookmark Prior page  /  Lesson 6  /  Print page 


 site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  glossary  /  chat contact