Which Disciplinary Technique Do You Use? The Consequences May Shock You

Parents have the best intentions when it comes to raising their children.  They read parenting books and research online, but it is still difficult to know the best course of action for each situation – especially in regard to behavior.

When it comes to negative behaviors in our children, many of us find discipline a tricky area to navigate.  Of course, we want our children to follow our rules, treat others with respect, and behave appropriately in all situations, but that can be easier said than done.

Parents can often become frustrated when it comes to discipline.  Sometimes it is difficult to find what works for your particular child.  Often our own frustration can cause us to be inconsistent with our methods of discipline, and sometimes we react inappropriately, causing confusion or other negative emotions in our children.

Such is the case when walking the fine line between teaching our children a healthy sense of guilt, or going overboard by shaming children for their negative behaviors.  Guilt can be healthy, but shame can have devastating consequences for children.

So why is guilt an important feeling for children, and what can we do to keep from crossing the line into making them feel ashamed?Many parents may not understand the difference between the two.

Sfhelp.org reported:

Shame is the personal feeling and belief of “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”) guilt helps 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.

Experts agree that it is entirely appropriate and healthy to allow children to develop moderate levels of guilt, and as parents, we must guide our children in developing and understanding these feelings.

Did your child hit or bite another child in the playgroup, or snatch a toy away at daycare?  It is important to make a child aware of when they are hurting someone else, either physically or emotionally, by beginning a dialogue at an early age.

We can tell them, “it makes your friend sad when you take his toy.  We don’t want to make others sad,” or “it really hurts when you hit your friend.  You would not like it if that happened to you.”

The key for parents is to help young children understand the other person’s feelings.  Empathy is a very positive character trait to encourage in our children.  However, shaming our children for negative behavior must be avoided at all costs.  When children are shamed at a young age, especially by a trusted caregiver, they can develop feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem that can be extremely difficult to overcome later in life.

Dr. Tina Malti has studied the development of guilt in children and notes that guilt is similar to the positive trait of empathy. “Moral guilt is healthy, good to develop,” she said. “It helps the child refrain from aggression, antisocial behavior.”

Although we can start teaching our kids about respect and treating others with kindness at the earliest age, younger children may not have an understanding of the complex feeling of guilt until around age 5 or 6.  Because of this, it remains vital for parents to foster these feelings in a positive way; empathy, rather than shame.

In her study, cited on PubMed.gov, Dr. Malti stated in studies,

Sympathy predicted helping, cooperation, and sharing. Guilt-sadness and moral reasoning interacted with sympathy in predicting helping and cooperation; both sympathy and guilt-sadness were associated with the development of sharing. The findings are discussed in relation to the emergence of differential motivational pathways to helping, cooperation, and sharing.There’s lots of evidence that healthy guilt promotes children’s prosocial behavior,” she said.

The key for parents is to continuously keep an open dialogue with our kids about their actions. Teaching our children to understand how their behavior affects others helps kids to better understand right and wrong.

When they fully understand why a behavior is right or wrong, they will be able to develop the internal conscience that makes them feel guilty when they act in a negative way or break a rule.

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Alternately, shaming our children by making them feel bad about themselves as a person will backfire.  They can begin to think they are not a good person, and so there is no reason to try to do what is right.  Children should always understand that while a behavior may not be good or right, it does not mean they are not a good person.

The New York Times reported:

Dr. Helen Egger, chairwoman of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University, said that guilt reflects what is called “theory of mind,” that is, a child’s developing understanding that other people have feelings and a point of view; “children have to have developed a theory of mind, self and others, to be able to feel guilt.” And rarely, if a child doesn’t develop the capacity to feel guilt, she said, “when you have lying or lack of guilt, the child seems to have a reduced capacity for empathy.”

The usual distinction is that guilt is the internal emotion, what you feel inside when you know you’ve done wrong or caused harm. Shame is external; it’s what you feel before the judgment of other members of your family or your society who know of your transgression. But that distinction is a little simplistic, said Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, because “in the absence of an audience, we can feel shame just imagining it.” Part of growing up in your culture is “a kind of internalization of the values that a society holds,” he said.

Fostering a healthy sense of guilt in our children is an important job for all parents, but there is a fine line between this positive parenting technique and the harmful act of shaming our children.

You can visit Mommy Underground for more great tips on child development and behavior, including this article on the dangers of shaming our children.

Do you foster empathy in your child through the development of healthy guilt?  What are some things you do to nurture this feeling in your child?  Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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