Developmental Changes in Adolescents’ Guilt and Shame

Introduction and Literature review

Little research has been carried to ascertain the impact of shame and guilt in the normal developmental process of adolescents in ideal or non-ideal family settings. For a clear view of the role of these two emotive responses, one needs to have a clear picture of the setting of various families from which these adolescents come from, since the structure of the family is deemed to have an influence on the expression of these emotions in children and adolescents.

Studies have shown that tensions within families may be as a result of long lasting shame that was not dealt with at the appropriate time and results in individuals harboring grudges that may be deleterious when it comes to family relations (Scheff, 1995).

Furthermore, studies carried out in different family models show that empathy type of admonishment by parents brings about mild expression of guilt in the respective children (Baumeister, 1998). This guilt is seen by researchers to be healthy (Hoffman, 1998). In addition, it has been observed that families where parents show more compassion to their children, the children tend to have mild levels of guilty.

Even though few studies have been carried out to ascertain the influences that age and type of gender have an influence on the feelings of guilt and shame, studies show that these feelings are diminished in the pre-adolescent period and become elevated at the start of puberty and the trend continues late into puberty (Bybee, 1998).

The study also shows that guilt and shame emotions tend to be expressed more in people of the female gender than those of the male gender (Bybee, 1998). Despite these studies assessing numerous factors relating to shame and guilty, they fail to elaborate the link between issues relating to the family as a unit and the influence of the family to expression of guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame have in most cases considered to be one and the same thing, but some researchers have come out and refuted this assumption. Research has shown that, guilt leans toward feelings of penitence in relation to the specific action done and a strong will to undo the action by the concerned party (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). The outcome of this guilt feeling may be harmful or beneficial to the individual depending on a myriad of factors that may be at play.

On the other hand, researchers have shown that shame leans towards feelings about self rather than the act and the affected individuals have a tendency to conceal the action. Feelings of shame are in most cases unpleasant and make the subject uneasy and may result in adverse actions such as attempts at suicide or self-harm (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Furthermore, shame may result in emotional derangements especially in children of the preschool age bracket (Walter, 2001).

Other studies carried out, show adolescents from dysfunctional families are more likely to express strong feelings of shame and guilt when compared to those from families termed as stable (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000).


Feelings of shame and guilt are under the influence of the gender of the individual and climate of the family.

This is a correlational study that aims at assessing the association between the family climate in terms of structure and gender to feelings of shame and guilt among adolescents. The dependent variables in this study are feelings of shame and guilt measured using The Test of Self-Conscious Affect. The independent variables are family structure, age and gender.



One hundred and seventy six were enrolled in the study. They were divided into three groups based on the grade they attended. Sixty-three were in the eighth grade, 73 in the tenth grade and 76 were in their first year. The mean age of the students was 15.84 years with a range of between 12 to 20 years. 74% of the participants were white, 17% were of African-American descent. Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups accounted for 9% of the total participants.

In addition, 68% of the participants reported to have come from married (intact) families, 27% reported to be from divorced or separated families and reported to be from what was termed “other” families. These included those from foster homes and with widowed parents or guardians.

Three questionnaires were used in gathering the information from the participants. The questionnaires were filled in groups consisting of 10 to 20 participants. Basic information about the participants such as date of birth, gender and ethnicity were collected using a specifically designed demographic questionnaire. The Test of Self-Conscious Affect for Adolescents (TOSCA-A) questionnaire was used to collect data from participants’ emotions such as shame, guilt and other emotions in the setting of various scenario.

A series of fifteen specifically designed situations were used and were based on a scale that had 10 positive situations and 5 negative ones. These situations were then shown to the participants to elicit specific feelings.

The participants were then ranked on a scale of 0-5. A modified Family Closeness Questionnaire was used to assess the type of relationship between the students and their respective families. The questionnaire has 10 questions and the responses were ranked on Likert-type scale. All the questionnaires used had a Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient adding validity of the study.


The results were taken through a preliminary analysis step by conducting internal consistency reliabilities on the two main questionnaires. TOSCA-A had an alpha coefficient of.80for guilt and.81 for shame among all the groups under study. The Family Closeness Questionnaire had an alpha coefficient of.92. Furthermore, the alpha coefficients for closeness to mother and father for the FCQ was.89 while that for the siblings was.85. The association between shame and guilty was statistically significant.

Analysis of the marital status was by carrying out t-tests on the dependent variables. The results show that the values for shame or guilt were the same, though minute differences were reported in the extent of closeness to the immediate family. Other analytic undertakings included ANOVA on the TOSCA-A, showing an increase in guilty with a corresponding increase in age.

To elaborate the association of family closeness and awareness emotions a Pearson-Product Moment correlation was carried out. The results show that neither shame nor guilt had any identified relationship of closeness to any of the family members.

The only exception was the association of guilt free shame to the closeness to the father. In all these cases, the results were statistically significant with all the p values being less than 0.005. The results also show that adolescent girls were more likely to feel shame and guilt as compared to boys of the same age.


The study looked at the impact of intimacy to family members among adolescents and the influence of this intimacy to increased tendency to express feelings of shame and guilt. The study reinforces the belief that shame and guilt are two dissimilar feelings even though they are difficult to determine. The outcomes show that the marital status has no influence on the feelings of guilt and shame among adolescents. Nevertheless, the age and gender of an individual has an influence on the feelings of shame and guilt.

Guilt reporting among adolescents was identified to be a function of intimacy to family members. Shame had no correlation at all. The whole family unit was identified to influence feelings of shame and guilt among girls while for boys the father had a substantial influence on the feelings of shame and guilt.

The main query of the study was to identify the effect of intimacy to tendency to feel shame or guilt among adolescents. Furthermore, we purposed to elaborate the marital status’ influence on these feelings and as such, the marital status was identified as a confounding variable in this study.

From the study, it was observed that adolescents from families termed as intact reported to be more intimate to their family as compared to those from divorced or separated families. Intimacy towards the mother had no connection to the marital status. The explanation for this is that in most cases, after divorce, the mother is the sole caregiver.

Self reported feelings of guilt and shame among adolescents from intact families was similar. As such, marital status has poor prediction potential when it comes to feelings of guilt and shame among adolescents though it has a connection to family intimacy. There is a great controversy about the effect divorce has on sibling interactions.

It has been observed that girls from divorced families have more feelings of comfort with their siblings as compared to those from intact families (Kurdek & Fine, 1993). However, other studies show that siblings originating from divorced families were not as close when compared to those from intact families (Milevsky, 2004). Despite these findings, the marital status had no impact on expression of feelings of guilt and shame among adults.

Even though earlier studies show a decline in expression of guilt and shame as one grows, our study did not reproduce these findings. Our study, found out that there was a slight increase in both guilt and shame, with the increase in shame being observed more in girls than in boys.

This is because the intensity of shame and guilty decreases as one grows older even though, the tendency of expression of these feelings increases. Future studies should focus on the factors that regulate expression of guilt and shame among adolescents. In addition, the spectrum should be widened to include those adolescents that do not attend school.

It was observed that girls shoed more feelings of shame and guilt when compared to boys. These results are in tandem with studies carried out earlier that show that gender plays a role in expression of feelings of shame and guilt. In addition, intimacy among family members was associated with high levels of guilt reporting.


Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Guilt and Children. Boston: Academic Press.

Bybee, J. (1998). The emergence of gender differences in guilt during adolescence. Boston: Academic Press.

Hoffman, M. L. (1998). Guilt and Children (pp. 91-112). Boston: Academic Press.

Kurdek, L. A., & Fine, M. A. (1993). Parent and nonparent residential family members as providers of warmth and supervision to young adolescents. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 245-249.

Laumann-Billings, L., & Emery, R. E. (2000). Distress among young adults from divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 671-687.

Scheff, T. J. (1995). Conflict in family systems: The role of shame. New York: Guilford Press.

Tangney, J. P. & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and Guilt. New York: Guilford Press.

Walter, J. L. (2001). The emergence of the capacity for guilt in pre-schoolers: The role of personal responsibility in differentiating shame from guiltDissertation Abstracts International, 62, 3830-3831.

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