Helping Your Teen Overcome Shame and Guilt

We are all likely to experience feelings of shame and guilt at some point. Our children and teens are not immune to feeling these emotions from time to time.

For some, it can become more of a chronic concern that can lead to some harmful and dangerous behaviors. Helping your teen starts with recognizing shame-based thinking and offering a new focus for positive thinking and new behavioral and thinking processes.

What is shame and how does shame differ from guilt?

Shame can be viewed as one of the feelings of discomfort that accompany a belief that you’re unworthy of love and good things and that you are deeply flawed.

  • Shame can be fueled by the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us.
  • Guilt can be seen as having some benefits for people who feel it, but shame doesn’t benefit the person who feels it.

As an example, your teen could feel shame about his physical appearance, his quirky sense of humor, or some other personal aspect about himself.
Guilt is steeped in feelings of regret when we believe or know that we’ve taken part in something wrong or behavior inappropriately. The benefit of guilt is that it offers us the opportunity to improve ourselves and help us to grow. It can also make us acutely aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses.

Shame may not lead to positive changes, but guilt can.

The two differ, but they are interconnected. Each emotion can lead to feelings of discomfort, but guilt does offer that opportunity to better ourselves. Shame can leave your teen feeling like he’s not good enough or deserving.

What does shame and guilt look like in a teen?

Most of the way that we feel can be attributed to reactions to specific situations or events that we feel are either positive or unpleasant. Once these situations or events have passed, the feelings that we related to them typically fade away.

Emotions can be thought of as being fleeting, in general. Shame and guilt are quite different. The hallmark of both shame and guilt is a steady awareness of our perceived defects.

Your teen may fall into the trap of living with shame-based thinking. His focus will be more on his few perceived failures than on his multiple successes. His thoughts could prove to be overflowing with regret, judgment, and predictions of failure in the future.

Teens who are flooded with feelings of shame and guilt are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and a world of other mental concerns. Generally speaking, most teens who struggle with shame and guilt are not at an increased risk of violent behavior or aggression.

If your teen is struggling with guilt, he may begin to have trouble sleeping and show the signs of increased anxiety. He may start to have nightmares, and he may start to isolate himself. He may even begin to talk about harming himself.

If your teen is struggling with shame-based thinking, he might be expressing negative thoughts. Some of them can be quite shocking for a parent to hear, particularly because there is rarely any merit to this type of thinking.

Your teen may say phrases like:

  • I’m broken.
  • I’m damaged.
  • I’m a mistake.
  • I’m disgusting.
  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’m useless.
  • I’m not wanted.
  • I’m not strong enough.
  • I’m worthless.
  • I’m nothing.

It does not matter how intelligent or accomplished your teen is. He could still be struggling with that negative way of thinking about himself.

When should you step in to help?

When your teen’s feelings of shame and guilt begin to impact his ability to function, there is cause for alarm.

Some of the areas of his life that may be impacted include:

  • Physical health
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Social interactions
  • Relationships with family, friends, and romantic interests
  • Academics

Getting your teen help when his grades start to slip or he starts to isolate himself away from family and friends can be beneficial. It’s never too late to get help for your teen but the sooner that you do intervene, the sooner your teen can find his way back to normalcy and comfort.

If you’ve started to recognize the signs of decreasing mental wellness, early intervention can help before things escalate.

What kind of help is beneficial?

Help for a teen struggling with feelings of shame and guilt could take on several forms. Coaches at school, therapists, psychiatrists, and family support can all be beneficial for the teen in a mental and emotional crisis.

Therapy is a safe space for your teen to start to discuss how he feels and begin to explore why he is feeling this way. The roots of the issue can be uncovered and addressed. Therapy should be a confidential and non-judgmental safe space for your teen. Someone who is already struggling with intense feelings of shame needs to know that he can trust his therapist and parents when he seeks out help.

Individual therapy, family therapy, peer support groups, and community space can help teens discuss how they feel.

As a parent, you may be wondering what you can do to help your teen outside of getting him the valuable therapy that he needs. Some ways you can help your teen at home include:

  • Start by talking with him honestly and openly. Help him to identify the emotions that he is feeling. Identifying the emotions can potentially help to reduce some of the stress and anxiety that accompanies it. It can also help to keep the situation from spiraling.
  • Help your teen to work out whether he is feeling shame or guilt. This can help him to better cope with what he’s feeling and can also help him to identify what may have triggered the emotions.
  • Encourage your teen to journal his feelings and the journey he took to identify them. This can prove helpful when he reads back how he was feeling after any particular event or situation.

Teens who are struggling with guilt, shame, and other mental health concerns can quite often find comfort in the structure provided by a therapeutic boarding school. Here they will be able to get the focused therapy that they need, along with being allowed to catch up on any schoolwork that they’ve fallen behind on.

With the proper support and the right targeted therapeutic solutions, your teen can overcome shame and see a reduction in feelings of guilt.

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