Kids Feel Guilty

Advice for Grandparents Advice for Parents Blog Post Children and Loss Dr Emily McClatchey How do we talk to children about death Kidolences Blog Professional Help Talking to Children Understanding Death

Love Conquers Hate

Little girl standing unhappy

On my sixth Halloween, my older brother accidentally clocked me in the head with a golf putter. The putter’s edge landed square between my eyebrows, leaving a gash that would require two layers of stitches and leave me sidelined for trick-or-treating. For years afterwards, when we were in a fight, I would torture my brother by falsely claiming he hit me with that club on purpose because he wanted me dead. It was effective because he would forget whatever grievance caused the current argument, and instead focus on trying to disabuse me of this notion. Though we both knew it was absurd and a lie—still his guilt pervaded.  

Although it is completely unwarranted for a child to feel guilty about the death or departure of a loved one, guilt is a common response in children. It is human nature for children to have aggressive feelings toward loved ones. Unlike adults, children do not draw lines between reality and fantasy. They may believe that their aggressive feelings somehow inflicted pain or caused the loss or abandonment. They may fear that any normal anger they may have had toward the deceased makes them inherently bad.

Aggression is part of the human condition. Sibling rivalry, parental opposition, frustration, and competition with friends are all examples of healthy aggression. Some of us shrinks believe in a theory posited by a psychologist named Melanie Klein: a central task of early childhood is to come to understand that while we have complex feelings about those we care about, our love is stronger than our hate. This is central to our healthy development. Once we feel confident in this belief, we are freer to engage without fear or anxiety and guilt in close relationships. We can be trusted; we are not too dangerous to those we love.

It may seem absurd to us, but guilty feelings can be common, even if the death or divorce or goodbye is in no way the consequence of the child’s behavior or actions. In times of loss, children need to be reassured that their love is stronger than their hate.

So what can we do?

Little boy crying
  1. Reassure children that they are not to blame for the death of a loved one, for the divorce of their parents, for the departure of a friend. Use phrases like, “this has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do or how you felt.”
  2. Help children understand that anger is normal. Give them safe outlets to express their anger through play or art. Some children like punching bags and pillow fights. Some kids like to engage in destructive acts—modeling clay or play-dough or paper that can be ripped apart and shredded can be a nice outlet. Older kids may want to write a letter that they can shred afterwards.
  3. Give children space to honor and express their love for the deceased or departed. I created Kidolences boxes for kids for this express purpose: to give children a beautiful box to call their own and to decorate and fill with mementos and keepsakes. Crafting can be a great way to give children space for expression and memorialization.
  4. Take every opportunity to reinforce behavior that reflects the child’s tenderness and compassion, thus strengthening his self-perception that he is loving and kind.

How have you reassured a child in a time of loss? Leave a comment below.

Sending love,
Dr Emily

Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.


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