I want to talk about the importance of not shaming our children, while all too aware that it's a difficult topic to engage with without feeling shame around causing our child to feel shamed! But the shame minefield needs to be tackled if we're to collectively break the cycles of shamed people shaming people! Ultimately we all want to raise children who truly can stand tall and continue to believe in themselves despite the constant challenges of this world. And all want to ourselves enjoy life and parenting without carrying the burden of shame.
Shame creates much inner conflict. When children feel ashamed of their actions, they all too easily start to feel ashamed of who they are. When kids feel ashamed it creates a lot of inner conflict. Shame can cause kids to lose belief in themselves. Low self-esteem makes it more difficult for children to be considerate towards others. It's harder, even for adults, to truly feel caring towards others when feeling awful inside. And shame is a particularly awful feeling to bear. Kids lose their motivation to cooperation and work with their parent when they fear being shamed.
Every child deserves to live free of being shamed by their parents or caregivers. Parents often simply wish to make their child feel ashamed of the behaviour being discouraged, but the result tends to be the child feeling ashamed of themselves. Parents ineffectively try to encourage self-respect, self-care and self-discipline with comments like "have you no shame, how could you act like/ dress like that / talk like that". The problem is that even if this does motivate a kid to act differently to avoid being shamed, at best it's only training kids how to act, it works against encouraging a child to FEEL self-respect. The reality is that it's instilling a negative self-image and leads to lots of yucky feelings which (if not released and resolved) continue to drive unhealthy behaviour. Shame leads to children being overly dependent on the approval of others because disapproval touches on the painful shame they carry.
When there's no escape from the squirmy feelings of shame. There may be the odd exception, but I'm just going to generalize here and say we all grew up in environments where there was the omnipresent threat of being shamed. We were shamed for not getting it right, not working hard enough, not being clean and tidy enough, not doing well enough in school, or indeed doing "too well" for which you may have been accused of "getting ahead of yourself". Or warned to "not let it go to your head" if we succeeded, and chastised when we failed. We were shamed for eating too much or not enough, for being too skinny or too fat, for being too shy or too boisterous, for making a mistake, for crying, for being too emotional or too optimistic. We felt disdain from parents, teachers, relatives, society in general when we didn't conform to all the rules, regardless of whether those rules aligned with our values. Shame erodes one's sense of self, yet just as sad is the absence of empathy, compassion, reassurance, and space to express our feelings through all of life's ups and downs. Is it any wonder that most adults have deeply held beliefs that they're not good enough. Many additionally grew up in religious communities who also hold the fundamental premise that good behaviour can only be achieved by fearing punishment. Once again this instils much toxic shame!
To prevent or remedy your child carrying feelings of shame, you can commit to a shame-free environment at home. When one child shames the other, adopt the approach of mediating instead of shaming. When holding a limit, do it in a way that continues to show care for their disappointments and frustrations. When you need to express concerns about problematic behaviour or patterns, use I statements to model ownership of your feelings and avoid character assaults. This isn't a how-to article, it's more about increasing your awareness of these patterns to help decrease the risks of inadvertently causing shame. As well as offering some compassionate validation for the wounding of shaming that you likely gained in childhood. Maybe just start with my Stress Relief for Parents tracks, it offers so much more than stress release (which can't be underestimated), you'll feel like I'm supporting you to learn to be kind to yourself.
Peaceful parenting connection based approaches, on the other hand, result in children feeling good about themselves. When a child feels at peace in themselves, they're motivated to treat others well because they naturally enjoy positive relationships with other people. When children are free from shame, they're also free to hold boundaries and stand up for what they believe in. Resilience is ultimately about maintaining a positive relationship with self and hence doing what needs to be done to bounce back even when painful experiences happen in life.
As a counsellor, I live in the world of helping parents heal from debilitating shame. Much of my work is helping people uncover the deeply embedded unconscious beliefs gained from the messages from their family of origin that result in them continuing to repeat unwanted patterns (including addictions, self-harm, suicidality). The more shame a person holds, the harder it is to get help with the problems the shame creates because shame by it's very nature causes people to want to hide those parts of themselves. Shame-based negative beliefs (like "there's something wrong with me", "I'm so messed up", "everybody else is succeeding but I'm failing") can be changed when identified as being expressions of feelings of shame and those feelings are shared with a compassionate caring support person. Ultimately, we need to give to ourselves the empathy and loving acceptance of the painful feelings that we needed as children. True self-care and self-respect drives the journey of learning to create healthier relationships with others where we can feel seen, loved and accepted for who we are and no longer try to please the people who would more likely shame us than be real and vulnerable with us.
Alice Miller wrote: "As a therapist I know that we can free ourselves from inherited patterns if we can find someone to believe us and stand by us, someone who instead of moralizing wants to help us live with the truth." To be this person for our child, we need to find at least one such person in our lives.
It's easier to prevent the shaming that leads to destructive behaviours than to change it all in adulthood. Much of this very deep therapeutic work with clients over the last 27 years or so plus my own decades-long journey of uncovering and healing the impacts of my own childhood abuse continue to motivate me to help parents understand how much power they hold to instil self-love or shame. None of us can completely break generations of negative patterns of relating in one generation, but we can go a long way to pointing our emotional generational line in a different direction. And the more we work on all this, the more our children will help us by showing us when we're off track!
Simply becoming more aware of how vulnerable children are to feel shame and the negative impacts greatly motivates us adults to avoid shaming our children, to protect them from shaming from others and to repair any shaming that's happened in the past.
Did you as a child experience shaming? What form did it tend to take? Were you sometimes on the receiving end of ridicule, sarcasm, mocking? Or perhaps you were compared with a sibling or other children? Were you subjected to moralizing lectures from parents or teachers "you should know better"? Most parents themselves grew up in a family where parents liberally said "look at the state of this place, you should be ashamed of yourself". And of course that word doesn't even need to be spoken, as disdain gets expressed through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Social media can take public shaming to the next level. Some children experience shaming in the form of being betrayed when they shared something personal that either gets shared on without their permission or it gets later held against them. Sometimes parents talk about their child to others in a way that makes the child squirm. Or parents chastise, talk down to or otherwise criticize their child in front of others and it results in the child feeling humiliated. And sadly in more extreme cases, parents have used the power of social media as a way of creating intense levels of public shaming, which can be very traumatic. When you were a child, were you openly belittled or were there adult jokes at your expense? Or for many children, they experience a lot of mocking, shaming, name calling and humiliation from siblings.
Much of the shaming children experience happens in the name of humour, often humour between adults either at a child's expense or that exposes children to confusing adult themes that can erode their innocence and lead to shame.
Did you experience sexualized looks, comments, insinuations or touch that made you feel confused and ashamed, that caused you to carry secrets that no child should ever have to carry? One of the most toxic forms of shaming for a child, of course, is sexual abuse.
My Body Belongs to Me
to learn more about empowering your child to have a healthy body image and to grow up feeling empowered with healthy boundaries to protect themselves from invasive, sexualizing or labelling language or touch. (Read the full article)
Did an adult touch you roughly, maybe grab your arm gruffly, pull your hair, pinch you, tickle you against your will, hit you or even hit you on the buttocks or the back of the thighs. For a child to be physically hurt by an adult always has at least some element of shame attached to it. Yet when a child is hit on their thighs or buttocks the shaming impact is even greater. When this happens it's invariably a reenactment from the parent's own childhood. It's a complete and utter invasion of the child's bodily boundaries. As tragic as it is that children ever get hit, to be physically violated in such a private part of their body so close to the genitals has a devastating effect that will take an adult a lot of work to undo. That is if they are indeed lucky enough to discover the wounding impact before being at risk of passing it on to their child.
We can't completely protect our children from being shamed, but we can help them know that it's not ok. When kids know that shaming isn't ok, they will more likely feel free to put up a boundary when they feel shamed. And much more likely to have the confidence to seek help when needed. Parents greatly empower their child by making it safe for them to put up a boundary to their parent when they're feeling upset by how they are being related to. When a child tells their parent "hey that's not ok", or "you can't say that to me", or "that makes me feel bad about myself when you say that", it gives the parent an opportunity to restore their child's dignity by owning and repairing what has happened.
To protect our children from becoming shamed, we need to be able to notice when it's happening and then either intervene to advocate for our child, or express our regret and repair their dignity if we did the shaming. Adults saying or doing the things that shame a child mostly happens unconsciously as a result of the adult being desensitized to shame when they were young. To become sensitive to how we're affecting our child emotionally, it helps to become more aware of how it felt for us on the receiving end of insensitive treatment as children. The tracks of my Stress Relief for Parents CD were recorded with the intention to support parents through this journey.
“A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior and defective. Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up. These scripts are the roots of violence, criminality, war and all forms of addiction.” ―
Shamed kids often bully or become vulnerable prey to those who bully. Adults shaming their child, or shaming another in front of their child, gives ample permission to children to mistreat or talk down to others. When a child carries shame, they are at a dramatically higher risk of mistreating others or being unable to access help when they're being mistreatment.
Shame leads to aggression. Aggression leads to shame. Let's break the cycle by committing to not shame. No matter what the child does, they deserve for their dignity to be preserved.
To protect our children from shame, we need to face and resolve the shame we carry. Exploring how you felt as a child greatly helps to resolve and cleanse shame from your system while shining light on how shaming negatively impacts children in general. ~ Genevieve Simperingham
You might also like to read:
Repairing the connection after conflict with your child which is also relevant in helping our child repair from conflicts with others.
Keeping the lines of communication open with your child which includes the messages that we need to avoid giving to our child.
Everyone deserves to feel truly at peace with themselves This is a story about when my son was 9 and experienced shaming from a teacher
My Body Belongs to Me. Learn about the subtle ways that parents and relatives can cause children to be more vulnerable to both being sexually abused and being less likely to report it if it does happen.