When Feelings of Guilt in Children May Be Depression

Tips to help parents identify when it's time to get professional help

When Feelings of Guilt in Children May Be Depression

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When children have persistent or excessive feelings of guilt, it may be an important warning sign of depression. Parents and caregivers of children can learn to identify when guilt may signal a potential depressive disorder with this review of depression and guilt in children.

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is a universal emotion that most everyone will feel at some point in their lives. People usually experience guilt when they have done (or not done something) that violates a personally held belief or value.

However, feelings of excessive and unrelenting guilt are common in children with depressive disorders, such as major depressive disorder, depressive episodes in bipolar disorder and dysthymia. A child with depression may blame herself for anything that goes wrong, even if it is out of her control.

Unfortunately, feelings of guilt tend to produce other negative emotions, such as sadness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. A child with depression may feel guilty about not being able to engage in her normal daily activities, which only makes her feel worse.

When Guilt May Indicate Depression

Because guilt is a common emotion, it can be hard to know when it is an appropriate reaction and when it may be a sign of something more, like depression.

Parents and caregivers might start by asking a child what he feels guilty about and why. If he has a logical explanation for his feelings and his guilt lasts only a few days, it may be an appropriate response.

Parents can also get insights about the child's behavior from siblings, other family members, and teachers. Does the child only display feelings of guilt at home, or does the child exhibit these symptoms, even at school or while playing with friends? Observations from others can help give parents a fuller picture of the situation at hand.

If there does not seem to be a logical explanation for the child's feelings of guilt or the child's feelings seem to be disproportionate to the situation, consult with a medical or mental health professional. This goes double if you notice any of the following worrisome symptoms.

The Link Between Guilt and Anxiety

Feelings of guilt are also common symptoms of anxiety disorders, so it is important to know that excessive and persistent guilt alone does not always indicate depression. Has your child behaved in an anxious way in response to other situations?

Do you suffer from anxiety or have family members that do? You'll likely need to consider all of these factors while trying to determine if your child's feelings are healthy or not.

If you are concerned about your child's feelings or behaviors, talk to a medical or mental health professional to have your child evaluated. The sooner your child receives appropriate treatment, the sooner the burden of unnecessary guilt can be lifted.

If your child or someone else you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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Article Sources

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  • Depression and Suicide in Children and Adolescents. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. 
  • How Do Children and Adolescents Experience Depression? National Institute on Mental Health.