Guilt is something we avoid 'expressing' and can show up in other ways. Here's some tips to support tamariki who may be feeling guilty.
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A bit of background

Like adults, many children will avoid expressing feelings of guilt. In part this can be because they don’t want to admit to what they have done wrong, but another reason is that they may not really understand or have the words to express what they're feeling. Guilt can make us feel on-edge, isolated, uneasy and quick to defend. Aggression, quietness, avoiding eye-contact and coming across as overly-defensive can all be signs that a child is feeling bad about something.

As humans we inevitably do things that hurt or upset others (sometimes even deliberately!). But we are social beings and the purpose of guilt is to propel us to make things right again’.

Inspire (and try)

If you’re aware one of your tamariki has messed up in some way and this has followed the appropriate school process, then be aware they may be feeling guilty and this may in turn impact on their behaviour, self-esteem and emotions.

It’s also possible that you may be left unaware of tamariki feeling guilty – after all, how often do you share your own sense of guilt? In saying that, when we admit our mistakes and take responsibility we always feel better – our worst fears about admitting our guilt are never as bad as we imagine.

We therefore believe that building a ‘culture’ of honesty and trust is the best way to support tamariki. Not only does this encourage them to take responsibility for their actions, but it saves them from being left in an unsettled state, one that feels yucky and is likely to affect their self esteem and behaviour. Do this 'when there's time' - see below.

Enquire (and notice)

It’s important tamariki understand they have done something that’s not okay, rather than they’re’ not okay. When we feel labelled as ‘bad’ we often live up to our own reputation.

Think about the policies you have at school around disciplining tamariki for un-constructive behaviour. While it’s okay for children (or anyone) to feel guilty, it’s important they’re not made to feel ashamed, or disciplined over-and-over e.g. first by the school and then again by their parents. If you think this is occurring you may like to review the policy or meet with whānau.

Perhaps think about creating a whānau evening around positive discipline and the differences / impact of feeling guilty versus feeling ashamed.

  • Generally the difference is that guilt propels us to want to ‘make good’ again (which is positive!) while shame can trap us in a seemingly hopeless cycle where we feel like we do not have control over ourselves or the situation.
  • Shame needs to be counteracted by nurturing and compassionate relationships. By helping a child to see that they have worth and value, we create another narrative for them and enables them to build their confidence and self-esteem.

Tamariki will muck up every now and then (just as we do as adults!). It's important they have the opportunity to quickly 'make right' as soon possible, and are rewarded and praised for this brave behaviour. Spend your time focussing on the behaviour you want!

When there's some time

To encourage an atmosphere of trust and ownership, begin by:

  • encouraging tamariki to talk about emotions and understand as many as possible. Pair this with talking about the reason our emotions exist (we’re social beings and they generally compel us to reconnect). This actually makes them all positive in some way – including guilt, even though it feels AWFUL!
  • talking about your own emotions
  • encouraging tamariki to take responsibility for their actions, so they feel supported to do so and won’t fear harsh or scary punishments! Validate (but don’t sanction): if the child admits to having done something wrong, thank them for their honesty and acknowledge that opening up about this may have been difficult.
  • discussing how owning up to our mistakes can often feel like a weight is lifted off of us! Highlight to the child that their feelings of guilt are actually a really good sign — it means that they are demonstrating empathy! It also shows they feel a sense of responsibility or remorse for the harm they have done.

Sparklers activities to help:

A couple of general tips!

When doing Sparklers activities that explore ‘emotions’, make sure ‘feeling guilty’ is included. Emphasise that our behaviour isn’t always constructive or thought-through, but that we can often use kindness and our personal strengths to mitigate any harm done, and to learn from the experience.

Tamariki with diagnoses such as autism typically cannot take responsibility for their actions because of their difficulties empathising with others, and as a result will not feel 'guilt'. These tamariki may require different strategies. RTLB's can provide fantastic guidance for you on this. You may also like to read through our information on supporting tamariki with diagnoses.

Plan (and reflect)

It’s worth knowing your tamariki as well as you can so you understand what may be impacting them. When whānau haven’t engaged with the school, we’ve heard some teachers will keep an ear out for weekend events e.g. the rugby or netball game and show up for part of the game to support them, and meet any family attending. While this is certainly going beyond the call of duty, it might be worth thinking about some creative ways to engage in these non-confrontational ways, especially if you have tamariki with behaviour that can’t really be explained and/or is unusual.

Guilt often comes up for children when they feel at fault for family circumstances, such as parents separating, terminal illness or death. If they can’t tell you what’s going on, connecting with their whānau may be essential.

Guilt can be a confidence and self esteem knock. If children already faced consequences at school, talk to parents about not disciplining again at home and provide a positive tip sheet to help encourage positive behaviour.

Review (and follow up)

If there’s no need for any follow up, other than what we’ve suggested above (if it’s applicable), then please feel free to make a cuppa, go stare out the window and notice the weather ,clouds and trees for five minutes — a wee mindfulness technique offering some time out for you. Enjoy.

We love the Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) approach and encourage working in this creative and strengths-based way. We’ve adapted their ‘Encourage Positive Behaviours’ model for Sparklers. and recommend familiarising yourself with this and as your go-to for further analysis and as a matter of fantastic practice!

Encouraging positive behaviours via a classroom and whole school approach… how cool is that?!

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