Shame Versus Guilt and WHY Words (especially with children) Matter


wordsWhen your child does something that needs correcting, what words do you choose?

As I’m entering my age of awareness, I’m becoming increasingly sticky with words because words matter. They carry with them an energy that’s directly conveyed to the recipient. When the message is positive, it enlightens our senses and brings delight. But when the message is negative, a weight can be associated with them, and often a length of time for which they are carried.

Sometimes there are consequences for poorly chosen words because, you see, the truth is, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can deeply hurt me. Especially for a child who’s not equipped to manage them. Words become the invisible scars that some carry for a lifetime.

Children are born with the desire to connect socially, but that doesn’t mean they understand the social conscience. That’s best learned through the repeated experience of on-the-job training through good examples of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Most importantly, it’s taught by allowing the child to correct their behavior rather than self. 

When your child does something that’s not desired and needs to be corrected (or reprimanded), how do you best do that? Because you know it’s going to happen. At some point, your little darling is going to mess up. When that happens, think about how and with what words you use to correct the wrongdoing.

When disciplining our children, we need to pay extra special attention to the words we choose because you could be changing their whole perception of self-worth in just a word. Let me give you an example of that by using words of shame versus words of guilt: If you say to a child something like, “Why do you always do that?” or “You are a naughty boy,” or anything else that’s filled with a sense of shame behind the words used, you are sending a message that YOU are wrong or bad.

Now think about this same situation with behaviors that need to be addressed, but instead of using words filled with shame, you use messages filled with guilt. Yes, both shame and guilt are negative, but each one yields quite different results. For example, guilt would sound more like this: “Why did you do that?” or “You are behaving like a naughty girl” or whatever guilt-ridden words are spoken to the party in question. It suggests you DID something bad. Very different results are achieved (or rather received) with the rephrasing of the correct word choices.

Think about what happens when you hear “Shame on you?” versus “What did you do?” Shame is clearly filled with the notion that YOU not only messed up, but this is something from within you – the person. This is the label of who you are.

But if you’re questioned (and guilted) about what you did through a behavior, action, or mistake of any kind, you realize that it’s not a socially acceptable thing. It’s not that you ARE wrong, but what you DID was not desired for the social collective. And so you put it in your mental files and (hopefully) alter your behavior moving forward.

We all need to be equipped for the lives we live if we want to live vibrant lives. Emotional literacy, which is our ability to articulate feelings and discern the spoken word wisely (be it ours or others), is a HUGE part of that process.

Understanding something as basic as the difference between shame versus guilt is an important component of that development. Giving that gift to our children is priceless. We do that by bringing awareness to the words we choose and knowing where and how they land. That’s how to begin giving that gift because it matters – words matter.

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Arlene equips moms with life rhythm tools and teachings to restore joy, sanity, and self - because when a mom can show up for her role from a place that’s full and vital - everyone wins. Arlene is an experienced career woman, wife, and homeschooling mother of three. She began the journey into health and wellness over 20 years ago when she cured her own IBS after conventional medicine failed (not one Doctor thought to ask about diet and lifestyle). Then, she became a mother and suffered from anxiety for the first time in her life when she became overwhelmed in her role. It wasn’t more information she needed, it was an application of smart and practical tools for living in a healthy life rhythm. So she built her tool kit to get back on track and started implementing new practices. Using experience as one of her greatest educator, combined with training, she helps moms restore, replenish, and revitalize their lives. Visit Arlene at