WHAT TO DO WITH GUILT?
One of the struggles parents have when faced with a child who is experiencing guilt is balancing accountability with emotional support. That's the magic formula for helping kids assume responsibility for their actions without turning their "guilt" to "shame". (More on "shame" in a future post!). And it exactly that balance - between accountability and support - that helps kids (and adults too, for that matter) learn how to appropriately resolve guilt by admitting and accepting responsibility for their actions and, if it does not risk further harm to those who have already been hurt, making amends in a meaningful way.
Say your child comes home and talks to you about feeling badly about something mean they said to someone on the playground. Maybe they joined in with peers to tease a classmate or exclude a child from play - or maybe they initiated the teasing or excluding behaviours! If they feel safe enough to come to you with this, CELEBRATE! and keep your cool! (This is one of those moments that calls for "parenting with serenity" - Keep Calm & Carry On Parenting!). Assuming you've kept your cool, you can then move to talking openly about what happened and BE SUPPORTIVE.
Now you're wondering how in the world anyone can be supportive when your child comes to you with such a violation of your family's values? Well, you just DO. You decide that the open, honest relationship you have with your child is worth more than venting your frustration, embarrassment or disappointment at them in this moment and you just offer support and validation.
What could that sound like? Try this conversation:
Child: I think I hurt the new girl's feelings today. I joined my friends in teasing her at recess.
Parent: You joined your friends in teasing the new girl and you noticed that she felt hurt by that?
Child: Yes. I feel so bad about it. I didn't want to be left out and I guess I didn't think about what she would feel...until I saw how sad she looked.
Parent: So you joined in because you didn't want to be left out but noticed she looked sad and now you're feeling guilty about teasing her?
Child: Yeah. (probably crying by now).
Parent: [HUG]. I am so proud of you for coming to tell me about this. Guilt is a hard feeling to have. It means you've done something that you don't feel proud of doing or that you know wasn't the right thing to do. That's a good thing that you're noticing that.
Child: But it feels awful.
Parent: Sure does. What do you need from me to help you work through it?
Child: I don't know. I'm gonna see the new girl again at school tomorrow and I don't think I can face her. She may have told her parents or Teacher and we'll all be in trouble, so I am afraid of that, I guess, but, I just don't want her to think I'm a mean person.
Parent: Sounds like you want to try to make things right with her. Why don't we sit down and figure out how you might be able to offer her an apology? Maybe by talking to her, or by writing her a note? What do you think?
Child: Sure. That would be good. But what if my friends bug me for doing that?
Parent: Well, then you'll come and talk to me about that and we'll figure out what we need to do then!
Child: Thanks Mom!
What do you think? Do-able?
I think so!