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May Experience and Express Guilty Feelings (27-36 Months)

Sometime between years 2 and 3, children gain the ability to evaluate their own behavior against a standard. As children learn about the expectations other people have of them, they gain a better sense of the rules and standards of their family and culture and begin to internalize them. When children fail to meet the standards or goals they perceive, they might experience feelings of guilt or shame. While researchers have defined shame as a sense that the self is bad, guilt emerges when children attribute their perceived failure to the situation and not to some shortcomings or character flaws in themselves. These feelings often lead to a desire to want to make things better. For example, if a child hurts another by accident, she might feel bad about it but doesn’t conclude that she’s a bad person or a clumsy person. Instead, she recognizes that she’s a “good” person who’s done a bad thing, and she feels guilty about it.


Lewis, M. (2000). The emergence of human emotions. In Lewis, M., & Haviland-Jones, J. M. (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.