A Guide to Help Youth with Guilt
Akash was seven when, one rainy morning, he left house to catch the school bus…without raincoat. His mother called after him, but he ignored her. Finally, his father began calling, but Akash could see the school bus coming up the road and didn’t want to miss it.
He turned to watched from the school bus stop as his father raced towards him with Akash’s raincoat in his hands. Moments later, Akash’s dad crossed a slippery patch on the sidewalk; his feet flew out from underneath him, and he hit the ground hard, his head making a loud cracking noise as it hit the concrete sidewalk.
His dad’s injuries from the fall were severe, and he was rushed to the hospital where, due to complications arising from his fall, he died eleven days later.
After his father’s accident, Akash, a formerly bright and cheerful kid, became dull and morose. At ten, he was nearly killed when he stepped into the path of a car on the street in front of his house. At thirteen, he began suffering from extended bouts of severe depression. At fifteen, he tried to take his life.
Akash’s mother had grieved for years over her husband’s death and even longer over the change she had witnessed in her son. She knew her teenage son was suffering deeply, but she couldn’t understand why. It came as total shock to her when she discovered, after attending counseling with her son, that he had been consumed with guilt for most of his life because he blamed himself for his father’s death.
Problem of Guilt
Guilt is an inescapable fact of human existence.
Dr. Keith G. Olson, in his book Counseling Teenagers writes that guilt is an inescapable fact of adolescence. Psychologist Jane Marks says, “Children….tend to believe that they are responsible for the events around them.” That tendency sometimes continues into adolescence. If friend gets hurt in their presence, they’re apt to feel degree of guilt about it. If parents argue or fight, they’re likely to feel guilt. If they pass a homeless man on the street, they may feel guilt over his condition. Add to this acute – often unreasonable – sense of culpability the reasonable guilt that results from wrong act they do commit, and the result is a potent emotional and spiritual mixture.
Olson describes guilt as: …..a very painful, disruptive fact that plays a significant part in many of our psychological, emotional and physical disorder. Psychiatrist Quentin Hyder describes the complex emotion of guilt in this way: “It is partly the unpleasant knowledge that something wrong has been done. It is partly fear of punishment. It is shame, regret or remorse. It is resentment and hostility toward the authority figure against whom the wrong has been done. It is feeling of low self-worth and inferiority. It leads to alienation, not only from others, but also from oneself, because of the discrepancy between what one really is and what one would like to be. This leads to loneliness and isolation. Guilt, therefore, is partly depression and partly anxiety.”
Olson goes on to point out that the religious often have greater difficulty coping with guilt than the non-religious do, particularly those religious who are legalistic in their belief and practice. And Bruce Narramore states: It is amazing how consistently we are taught that guilt feelings experienced by God’s children come from God. I believe the reason they have equated guilt feelings with voice of conscience is due to its failure to distinguish between three different types of guilt. A brief look at these distinctions will help clarify the problem.
The first, civil or legal guilt, signifies the violation of a human law. It is a condition or a state rather than a feeling or emotion. We can be guilty of breaking the road rules, for example, even though we may not feel guilty.
Religious guilt, on the other hand, refers to the violation of divine standards or divine law. The religious text like Bible indicates that each of us is religiously guilty; we have “all sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But Religious guilt is not a feeling or emotion. It is a condition or state of being in which we are less perfect than God intends us to be, but it is not necessarily accompanied by the emotional aspects of guilt. In biblical sense, we are continual state of religious guilt…..but this doesn’t mean that we feel guilty.
Psychological guilt is the punitive, painful, emotional experience that we commonly call guilt. In contrast to the legal and religious types of guilt, psychological guilt is an emotional feeling.
Obviously, psychological guilt is the type of guilt that afflicts many teens and preteens, sometimes to an intense degree.
Psychological guilt, while it may accompany legal or religious guilt, is highly subjective. Dr Gary Collins points out that this subjective guilt may be strong or weak, appropriate or inappropriate. It may be beneficial, prompting us “to change our behavior or seek forgiveness from God and others. But guilt feelings can also be destructive, inhibitory influences which make life miserable.”
Causes of Guilt
Collins, in his book deals at length with the causes of guilt (that is, psychological guilt), citing past learning and unrealistic expectations, inferiority and social pressure, faulty and conscience development.
- Past Learning and Unrealistic Personal Expectations
Individual standards of what is right and wrong, or good or bad, usually develop in childhood.
Collins adds, for some parents the standards are so rigid and so high that the child almost never succeeds. There is little if any praise and encouragement because the parents are never satisfied. Instead, the child is condemned, criticized and punished so frequently that he or she is made to feel like a constant failure. As a result, there is self-blame, self-criticism, inferiority and persisting guilt feelings, all because the child has learned a set of standards, sometimes impossible to reach. While parents most often express these standards, sometimes they come from religious beliefs in the attainment of perfection.
As they grow older, children take over parental and religious standards. They expect perfection in themselves, set up standards which never can be reached, and slide into feelings of guilt and self-blame.
- Inferiority and Social Pressures
Social suggestions are the source of innumerable feelings of guilt.
“It is difficult to determine whether a feeling of inferiority creates guilt feelings, or whether guilt feeling produces inferiority,…” writes Collins. However, “social suggestions is….source of innumerable feelings of guilt.”
- Faulty Conscience Development
Collins continues, “At [an] early stage in life, the child…..learns about guilt. When the parents are good models of what they want to teach; when the home is warm, predictable and secure, and when there is more emphasis on approval and giving encouragement than on punishment and criticism – then the child knows what it means to experience forgiveness.
But when there are poor parental models, and/or moral training which is punitive, critical, fear-ridden or highly demanding, then the child becomes angry, rigid, critical and burdened by a continuing sense of guilt.
Dr. Dwight Carlson points out that guilt can be based on valid or true beliefs (such as guilt that comes from the prompting of the God), but it can also come from false beliefs (such as “the belief that I’m dumb, no good, or ugly, or that I have to be perfect,” which can spring from the other causes mentioned above by Collins). In either case, however – whether the psychological guilt is based on true beliefs or false beliefs – it can be equally harmful.
Effects of Guilt
There is a difference, of course, between the effects of objective guilt (legal and religious) and the effects of subjective guilt (psychological). Legal guilt may result in prosecution and punishment; religious guilt will, without forgiveness through mercy of God bring judgment and spiritual death. Subjective guilt, however, may bring several different consequences. Bruce Narramore details the five primary reactions to guilt: condemnation, rebellion, denial and rationalization, confession, genuine repentance.
Bruce Narramore writes: Let’s say people…rebuke you, threaten to reject you, and in general let you know they think you’re a mess. In other words, they make you feel immensely guilty. Your natural reaction to this guilt might be to give up and agree with their negative evaluation. You may think to yourself, They’re right. I really am a mess. By agreeing with their evaluation, you participate in their condemnation of yourself.
A young person who reacts to guilt in this way will typically seem sullen, sad and serious. He may often hang his head when speaking to others and exhibit to look others in the eye. She may unconsciously (or, in extreme cases, consciously) inflict punishment on herself by stumbling into frequent “accident” or gaining weight.
Such self-condemnation may also involve an inability to relax, a refusal to accept compliments, an unwillingness to say ‘no’ to the demands of others, or avoidance of leisure activities.
It may also lead to severe depression and even suicide attempts.
Narramore continues: Some people…. as soon as they’re made to feel guilty…. rebel. Someone might tell them, “You’re a failure.” Their response would be to think, You haven’t seen anything yet! And they would start to make things worse. There’re like a principal’s son who told me how frequently he rebelled against his father and the school. During one counseling session, he gleefully told me how, during a drinking spree with some of his buddies, he lifted his bottle of beer to his lips and yelled, “Here’s one for the principal’s board.”…. Others don’t rebel so openly. They are much like a married person who is passively resistant. Responding to their partner’s threats, nagging, or attempts to raise guilt, the husband or wife fights back with passivity. He or she fails to get ready on time, lets household tasks go undone, or gets involved in activities that neglect the family. Unfortunately, such passive rebellion stirs up more anger and guilt and compounds the problem.
The teen or preteen who reacts to psychological guilt in this way may exhibit rebellion against parents, teachers, or adults in general. Sometimes the rebellion is sharpest against the authority figure who prompts the greatest feelings of guilt – whether by words, attitude, or example.
- Denial and Rationalization
Narramore writes: [Another] way we react to guilt feelings is to deny them by rationalizing away our failures and weaknesses. We say things like: “Compared to other people, I’m not so bad.” “That’s just the way I am” or “That’s just human nature”…. Sometimes we hide our guilt by projecting our weakness onto others. We find in them the faults and vulnerabilities we are hiding in ourselves. By focusing on others, we avoid becoming aware of our failures.”
The youth who attempts to deal with guilt by denying and rationalizing it may be extremely critical, especially of parents and siblings. He or She may adamantly maintain innocence when his or her responsibility for some action or attitude is evident to all.
The teen or preteen who respond to guilt in this way may be prone to apologize profusely for an action that he or she repeats shortly thereafter. He may often be heard to say, “I said I was sorry.” She may be prone to feel sorry – not that she did wrong, but that she was caught.
- Genuine Repentance
When a young person’s guilt is the product of true guilt (guilt that results from true beliefs instead of false beliefs), he or she may respond with true repentance and finds forgiveness.
The effects of guilt feelings are not all negative. Some people have learned to accept mistakes, to grow from them, and to confess to God and others.
Response to the Problem of Guilt
The young man or woman who is struggling with guilt feelings will probably not profit from platitudes or reprimand to “stop feeling guilty.” It may be possible, however, for the youth to confront and deal with his or her guilt with the help of a youth leader, parent, or concerned adviser. The caring adult who is not a parent should seek to inform and involve the young person’s parent (or, ideally, assist the youth in doing so) at the first opportunity. Both parents and other adults can help a young person struggling with guilt feelings by carefully and sensitively leading him or her through a course of action such as the following:
Be careful to listen, not only to young person’s words (though that is vital), but to his or her actions as well. Encourage the youth to talk about what is troubling him or her, perhaps using the following questions suggested by Collins as starting points:
- What were [his or her parents’] expectations of right and wrong?
- Were standards so high that the child could never succeed?
- What happened when there was failure?
- What is the [young persons’] experience with forgiveness?
- Were blame, criticism and punishment frequent?
- What did the religion teach about right and wrong?
- Was the [youth] made to feel guilty?
- What makes the [young person] feel guilty today? Be specific.
- Does [he or she] show any of the ….. reactions…described above?
The parent, youth leader, or adviser hoping to help a teen or preteen come to terms with feelings of guilt will do well to first examine his or her own experience with the goal of using that experience as an opportunity, not to preach, but to understand the young person’s feelings and thoughts. This empathic concern can best be shown by:
- Careful, patient, and thorough listening (not being anxious to speak, reach conclusions, or give advice).
- Observation of emotions, mannerisms, body language – and what they may be revealing.
- Avoiding expressions of judgement or blame.
- Speaking (at first) only to be sure you’re hearing and understanding correctly.
Teenagers who are suffering from subjective guilt are usually very sensitive to the possibility of being condemned or judged by others. In fact, they often expect it.
Olson adds, it takes great courage for them to disclose their feelings of guilt. Nothing encourages this delicate process more than for the counselor to be genuinely understanding, accepting, and non-judgmental. This attitude reassures, “I am not interested in evaluating your behavior or judging your morality. I am interested in helping you to establish and accomplish your own goals.”
Though it may take a considerable amount of time, the wise youth leader or parent or teacher may do well to offer direction to a young person suffering from guilt feelings, perhaps along the lines suggested by Collins.
Once the youth has developed an understanding of what God truly expects, the caring adult can then lead him or her to investigate whether youth’s guilt feelings are constructive or destructive. If guilt is true, religious guilt, the young person should be gently encouraged to identify and confess his or her faults through repentance and trust God to forgive the faults and failures and relieve the young person of the accompanying guilt.
Finally, the youth can be helped to consider ways to counter any false feelings of guilt that may linger or crop up in future. The parent, teacher, or youth worker may help by guiding the young person through the following three-step process.
- Identify guilt quickly. If it is avoided or denied, it will be much more difficult to handle. Treat it like flu virus; try to identify it early and treat it immediately.
- Deal with feelings immediately.
- Pray; turn to God for His help in dealing with your feelings.
- Call a trusted friend or mentor; talk out your feelings.
- Talk back to your feelings; speak to your temptations as you would speak to an unruly dog.
3. Prevent and prepare for the next attack.
- Identify things or people that triggered your guilt feelings.
- Plan preventive techniques to stay away from that person or avoid that activity or to do something differently the next time you’re in a similar situation.
- Note your patterns and progress. Recognize – learn from – your vulnerabilities and your victories; seek to decrease the former and multiply the latter.
Direction such as that suggested above is of no value, of course, if it is not acted upon by the young person. The parent or other adult can suggest, cajole, urge, and advise but unless the young person makes the decision – and, to some degree, at least formulates the “plan” for himself or herself, it will meet with limited (or no) success.
The youth leader can help the young person establish reasonable goals, adopt right beliefs and new attitudes and behaviors, and develop habits that encourage hope and success instead of despair and failure, but unless the young person makes the important decisions himself or herself, freedom from guilt will not result.
If at any point the young man or woman becomes violent or suicidal (or appears to be approaching that point), or if the young person appears to exhibit symptoms of a serious personality disorder, the youth worker or teacher should notify the youth’s parents. The caring adult may also wish to consider consulting or (with parents’ permission) involve a profession counselor.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.