The Taconic Counseling Group

Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Good Guilt/Bad Guilt

A recent study by C. Zahn-Waxler, et. al. in the January, 1990 issue of Developmental Psychology suggests that the type of guilt children develop is influenced by their mother's emotional condition.  Rather than think of guilt as a source of misery, maybe we ought to think in terms of good guilt and bad guilt.


The National Institute of Mental Health researchers studied 87 children ages 5-9, the years when feelings of guilt begin to mature.  Of the 87 children, 35 had mothers who were well, and 52 had mothers who were depressed.  The children were given ambiguous situations illustrated by photographs, told to make up their own stories about what was going on and interviewed specifically about blame.


When the children's responses were compared, the researchers noted differences between the children of well mothers and the children of depressed mothers.  Children of well mothers generally expressed more guilt as they got older, expressed guilt directly and in association with empathy and responsible behavior towards others.  This was understood as adaptive guilt.


Though the children of depressed mothers also showed an increase in guilt symptoms with age, the pattern was different.  Five and six year old children of depressed mothers seemed to develop a premature and exaggerated sense of responsibility, laden with tension and distress.  Their guilt was associated with empathy but the researchers speculated that this type of guilt could burden children, overinvolve them in parents' problems and overextend their sense of responsibility, thereby interfering  with their own growth.  At seven and nine, the children of depressed mothers seemed to suppress guilt but voiced it indirectly and defensively in the form of unrealistic fears.  Their guilt was not associated with empathy and responsible action.  In fact, the researchers were concerned that this defensive suppression of guilt may interfere with their empathic involvement with others, increasing their interpersonal distance and vulnerability to depression. 


These findings are consistent with my clinical experience and Searles' notion that children sometimes try to heal their parents, far exceeding their own capacities.  The findings also have implications for professionals trying to help a depressed mother.  Often depressed mothers are very worried that they have damaged their children.  During the period when a mother is severely depressed, another adult in the child's world may need to buffer the child from feeling responsible.  However, as the mother recovers, she as well as her children would likely benefit from guidance in correcting her child's distorted sense of guilt.  This can help the mother restore the child's capacity to develop "good" guilt and reinstate her as a helpful mother to her children.


It is also important to note, again, that guilt per se is not bad for children.  Guilt, when it is adaptive, serves as a meaningful guide for children and, in later years, for adults, to know when their behavior is wrong or not congruent with their understanding of what is good. They can then review their behavior and decide whether they need to correct it. As children get older, it is important that they develop their own sense of what is good so that they have their own guide.  We tend to call this a conscience. In the process of this development from child to adult, a person decides which values they were taught will remain important and which ones they will modify based on their experience, their time in history and their evaluation of their own past.  When a child is burdened with defensive, exaggerated guilt, their sense of guilt is too rigid and inflexible and is much harder to modify and integrate at the adult level.  Thus, this type of guilt does not serve the person as effectively in trying to signal that their behavior is wrong.  The signals are too harsh and tend to be automatically obeyed or rejected without the full review required for adult, mature self-guidance.