Persistent or excessive feelings of guilt in children may be an important warning sign of a potential depressive disorder.
Guilt is a universal emotion that most everyone will feel at some point in their lives 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, like major depressive disorder, depressive episodes in bipolar disorder, and dysthymia. A child with depression may blame herself for anything that goes wrong, even if is out of her control.
Unfortunately, feelings of guilt tend to produce other negative emotions, like 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 might start by asking their child what she feels guilty about and why. If she has a logical explanation for her feelings and her guilt lasts only a few days, it may be appropriate.
However, if there does not seem to be a logical explanation for her feelings of guilt, or her feelings seem to be disproportionate to the situation, and if you notice any of the following, consult with a medical or mental health professional:
- Her feelings are worsening
- Guilt lasting more than 2 weeks
- She has additional symptoms of depression in children
- She is unable to function in her normal daily activities
- She has thoughts or actions of self-harm or suicide*
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.
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).
Depression and Suicide in Children and Adolescents. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Accessed: 02/19/2011. http://mentalhealth.about.com/library/sg/chapter3/blsec5.htm
How Do Children and Adolescents Experience Depression? National Institute on Mental Health. Accessed: 02/18/2011. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml