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When Kids Feel Guilty

As a toddler or preschooler, your child could easily hit, bite, or "borrow" without looking back. But now she might stammer, blush, or avoid eye contact when she knows she's done something wrong.

"At around 5 or 6, children begin to see things from others' perspective," says Phyllis Sonnenschein, a developmental psychologist specializing in parent-child relationships at Wheelock College, in Boston. "Instead of doing the right thing to avoid being punished, kids this age are beginning to understand the meaning and importance of trust and truthfulness."

While factors like temperament and emotional health affect this development, a parent's role in shaping it is essential.

Encourage Her to Think Things Through

Rather than lecture your child on why breaking her friend's crayons is wrong, ask, "Will Sarah be able to use those crayons to draw now?" and "How do you think she feels about someone breaking her crayons?" to help her understand that others may suffer because of her actions.

"When you get your child to consider what she's done, you send the message, 'I trust you to make a good decision,'" says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child.

Help Her Right Her Wrongs

Kids should feel a reasonable amount of guilt, but not so much that they think things can't be made better or that you'll be disappointed in them forever. By the same token, you don't want it to seem as though a quick fix can always make up for a transgression. Be clear when a mistake is serious and that you expect it won't happen again. Then have your child do something about it  --from returning a purloined toy to saying "I'm sorry."

Reinforce Efforts at Honesty

Kids this age often have a hard time hiding their feelings, so yours may very well come to you with the news of her misdeed. Let her know you're angry, but also praise her for being truthful. "Children don't like to let their parents down. If you say, 'I'm not happy with what you did, but I know it was hard (or embarrassing) to tell me and I'm so glad you did,' they'll risk confessing future wrongdoings," says Sonnenschein.

Similarly, if you suspect she hasn't confessed, calmly send the message that you trust her to do the right thing. "You can change her thinking about what she did, so that next time she'll think twice," says Shure.

Share Your Dilemmas

When you find yourself in a moral or ethical quandary that's appropriate to tell your child about, ask her what she thinks you should do. Then she'll understand that even for adults, it's sometimes hard to tell the truth and do the right thing.