Parents are trying hard. Really hard. I see it every day both within my psychology practice and with my own parenting friends and family. Whether it’s doing your best to channel the communication skills of a hostage negotiator as you convince your 5yo to have a shower (because, you know, it’s been four days and this kid really needs to bathe), or whether it’s setting boundaries with your teen on social media after discovering she has been involved in a cyberbullying incident, IT IS HARD.
Throughout this roller coaster ride we call parenting, we are continually faced with decisions regarding discipline.
One way parents might respond to a child’s undesirable behaviour involves shaming. Parents generally use shame to get children to do what the parents want. It’s a way to control the situation.
Shaming occurs when we speak to our children in certain ways. It involves a comment about what a child IS, rather than about the child’s BEHAVIOUR, that gives children a negative view of themselves.
Shaming can sound like this: “You’re a horrible girl”, “You are so selfish – share!”, “That’s how a baby acts. Are you a baby?”, “Stop acting like an idiot”.
Parents might think that if they make their child feel bad enough then they will think twice before behaving the same way again. But over time, shamed children become withdrawn and feel less capable to make good decisions. Research tells us that feeling shamed is associated with feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorder symptoms, port-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. Feeling shamed is related to risky behaviours.
You may instead want your children to feel remorse, to understand their actions are not OK, and to know the impact their behaviour has on others. If you want these factors to be what drives your children to behave better in the future, then it’s GUILT you’re after, not shame.
Guilt can lead to emotional growth whereas shame is debilitating and can cause all kinds of problems. It has a much more inward focus then guilt.
Guilt teaches “I did a bad thing”. Shame teaches “I am a bad person”.
But even the most well-intentioned parents might default to shaming language during stressful times. We lose control of ourselves and things slip out of our mouths in the heat of the moment. Let’s face it – adults can be as impulsive as kids at times! When our buttons are pushed, shaming helps relieve parenting frustration and release anger.
We do not want our children to feel that they aren’t worthy. Some of you will know what this feels like. It’s painful, and damaging.
So I encourage you to think of the bigger picture. Think about the children you are raising. What are your hopes for them? If you are like the many parents, it’s safe to assume that you want your children to be successful. You want them to go out into this world with an ‘I can’ attitude.
Brene Brown, shame researcher, states in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “…when it comes to our feelings of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most shaped by our families of origin — what we hear, what we’re told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging in the world.”
If you want your children to feel they are worthy, then work hard to create new habits of how you relate to your kids when they are acting inappropriately. It’s not necessary for a child to feel bad about themselves to learn better behaviours.