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How Children Develop a Guilt Complex

Updated on February 28, 2020
denise.w.anderson profile image

Denise speaks from her own experience. She has had many trials and difficulties in her own life and seeks to help others through theirs.

Asking who did it does not always get a truthful response.
Asking who did it does not always get a truthful response. | Source

Who Did It?

The minute something goes wrong, many parents automatically say, "Who did it?" Of course, no one confesses, and all of the children are punished. Perhaps each child is afraid that if wrongdoing is admitted, he or she will be singled out and belittled, as well as punished. Having previously experienced "justice" at the hands of the parents, there is a fear of being caught. It is better to have everyone get the blame rather than being singled out.

The feelings generated by these actions carry through to adulthood, causing contention, argument, and ill feelings within the family. Parental habits of demanding justice whenever something goes wrong, along with the desire to justify personal actions, lead to blaming, fault finding, and holding grudges.

The unfortunate by-product of this type of parenting is the guilty conscience. Outward criticism is personally adopted as negative self-talk. Self-punishment and self-criticism, left unchecked, lead to emotional numbness and the inability to recognize and accept positive life experiences. Rather, the person discounts these as flukes or chance happenings that rarely recur. They are not filed in the long term memory storage bank, and cannot be retrieved when needed to generate positive emotions.

The Purpose of Guilt

Guilt is an emotional and spiritual response. Each person develops the inner balance between good and bad, right and wrong, as part of their physical growth. Babies feel good when they see a smile, and cry when they see a scowl. At this early stage, there are only two emotions, happy and sad. Other emotions are noticed around the age of two years. Then anger, embarrassment, and fear are added to the mix, along with joy, excitement, and anticipation.

When a child reaches eight years of age, the differences between right and wrong become evident. Feelings of peace, or light, follow right actions and feelings of guilt, or darkness, follow wrong actions. Guilt is resolved by changing the actions to the right. Feelings of peace automatically follow. If a child is taught principles that foster this understanding, they will grow in the ability to choose good.

Unfortunately, unproductive guilt carries through to adulthood.
Unfortunately, unproductive guilt carries through to adulthood. | Source

Problems occur when physical or emotional punishment become the norm following wrong doing. Fear of being punished clouds the ability to feel peace and/or guilt, as well as the recognition of natural consequences for actions taken. A conditioned response is created in which darkness is associated with harm. Avoidance tactics are used to stay away from situations in which the darkness is experienced. Repeated occurrence makes mere thoughts bring on the guilt response.

Punishment leads to victimization. Those frequently blamed take on guilt, even though there was no wrong doing. The shame and feelings of hopelessness lead to excessive emotional issues, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress. The individual takes on the persona of someone who has been repeatedly abused or traumatized.

A person who feels victimized often blames others for the unfortunate things that happen in life. Emotional numbness leaves feelings of emptiness. Life becomes a series of events that are out of the control of the individual. There is no basis for moral or ethical responsibility. The person is as a ship tossed on the sea without the mechanism to reach the shore. The storm rages about, and there is no hope of comfort. All actions are perceived as harmful and debilitating.

Changing Unproductive Guilt

Years of distorted thinking patterns are difficult to change. It is necessary to unwind the unproductive guilt cycle, and find the source of self-blaming thoughts. Usually, it means bringing memories back that were long ago buried. According to Karol Truman, author of Feelings Buried Alive Never Die, they show up when we least expect them in the form of physical symptoms. Only when the feelings are identified and dealt with do the symptoms fade away.

Even then, circumstances in adult life trigger the memories and bring back the feelings. It is necessary to deal with them when they happen in order to keep them from taking over the unconscious mind and showing up later. Talking helps, saying the words, "I am feeling.... because....." It in never too late to come back and say what you feel in this non-defensive way. Many times, the other person does not realize what you have just experienced.

Misunderstandings occur easily when feelings are not identified and dealt with as they happen. Even excitement and anticipation can be misunderstood when not expressed. Feelings unexpressed tend to fester and grow. They cause spiritual and emotional pain that become self-defeating mechanisms that harm the self and others. If the anger and blame turn inward, they destroy any feelings of self-worth that exist. Turned outward, others become the target.

The best place to start is with identification. Adopt the positive habit of saying how you feel. At first it will be awkward and you may only recognize one or two emotions. Eventually, however, it will get easier, and you will find that you have a wide variety of feelings. Expressing them aloud gives you permission to feel them. You feel validated as a person. Life becomes more bearable, and the darkness of fear and unproductive guilt melt away.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Denise W Anderson


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    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Good to hear from you, Eric! Yes, children respond to what we say in do in ways that stay with them through their childhood, and on into adulthood. Our actions affect them tremendously. I appreciate your comments.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Denise this popped up on a "popular". Wow I am glad it did, I saw your name and said "Eric go read even though you are behind for the day at 630 am ;-)"

      Really good stuff. I never considered guilt and success as exclusive. Cool.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      8 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Yes, Glenns, we ofen get so tied up in what "should have" or "would have" been, that we spend all of our time suffering needlessly. It is okay to feel negative emotions, they are a part of life. But it is also okay to let go of them and experience relief and happiness.

    • glenns profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi Denise! Thanks for the bold and thought-provoking hub. I agree with you that you need to focus on the NOW, and accept the fact that guilt is a product of what WAS, and you need to accept it (i.e., "identified") and release it (i.e., "dealt with"). From then on can you break free of the pain and suffering, and like you said, life becomes a bit more fulfilling.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      8 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Dawn.

    • shimmering Dawn profile image


      8 years ago

      Well written, well explained. Great hub!


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