You Could Be Shaming Your Child on a Daily Basis…And Not Even Know It
With social media allowing us to stay connected to our friends (sometimes more so to their lives than to them) I found myself scrolling down my newsfeed during the holiday weekend.
(On a side note, I love watching holiday videos, funny videos of my friend’s kids, and cat videos!)
As I scroll down I stop to watch the video of a friend from high school. Her adorable 2 year old daughter adamantly defends her case as to why she chose not to listen to her mother. While I giggle at her body language and her animated gestures, as her English is still in the works, I admire her mother for allowing her the space to express herself. As this goes on for about 30 seconds, I then hear these words: “You were being a bad girl.” What am I getting at…?
While there is no malicious intention behind the use of phrases like that, they are so counterproductive to what parent’s wish to accomplish. They really do more harm than good. Allow me to explain why and suggest what messages we can send to our youth instead.
As a therapist I get the honor of working with many different people. Each family comes to me with their own set of unique qualities, yet they all share many of the same struggles. A common challenge I work with them to overcome is often time not what they verbalize as the “problem,” but rather an insidious root, causing disconnection between them and their children. And when we feel disconnected, our desire for any type of cooperation diminishes. This root, if not unearthed and exchanged for something more life enhancing, shows itself as shame.
Self-reflection: How do you define shame? What is your personal belief about shame?
I hear phrases like the one from the story above, from most of the parents I work with. I hear them say it directly to their children and say it about their children when they are not present. And although it is true, kids can act in some very questioning ways, over and over and over again, what parents often wish to communicate to their child gets very lost in translation.
Self-reflection: Do you think there is a psychologically impactful difference between these two statements: “You’re being a bad girl.” And, “You’re making a choice that will lead you to consequences.”
As we chug along the parenting journey there are so many moments in which our children, well, make mistakes. A lot of them. Oh…and let’s not forget those times where it seems like they make the same ones over and over and we may even begin to wonder if they are “doing it one purpose.” (Or maybe we do want to forget those!) As we attempt to handle everything else life comes with, we forget that at one point, it took us several times to learn a skill that now seems second natured.
When our well-intended desire to teach our children takes a turn for the worse, our actions and words have the potential to become filled with unhealthy shame. According to leading expert on Shame, Brené Brown there is a difference between shame (unhealthy – and what we unconsciously communicate to our children at times), and guilt (healthier – and what parents wish to instill at times, to help their children learn from their mistakes).
Shame is focused on the self. Messages are internalized as, “I am…bad”
Guilt is focused on the behaviors. Messages are internalized as, “I did…something bad.”
It is in moments of making some very questioning choices, which our children are really looking to us for reassurance, compassion, patience and a little direction. (Yes – even for the 20th time.) These moments present us with one of the greatest opportunities to really connect with them. When we create that connection with a little reassurance, “That’s okay. We all make mistakes,” consider it a HUGE WIN! It is when we are tired, stressed, anxious, scared, overwhelmed (you know that drill!) by our own stuff and we react from an unconscious place that we lose the opportunity for connection and shame seizes the moment.
Brené Brown, along with many other researchers, further define shame as a painful feeling or emotion.
Self-refletion: Do you believe that painful feelings are more effective, healthier teachers than non-painful feelings?
Many parents (being dragged by the baggage of the past and most likely the internalized statements they created as children) will defend the shame-inducing reactions they get sucked into by saying something like:
“It’s my job to teach them right and wrong.”
“How else will they learn?”
“After how many times of lying can I not accurately call my kid a liar?”
“It’s my job to know what’s best for them.”
“That’s how my parents talked to me and I learned.”
You get the point. Which, as a reminder, the point of this article is to help provide you with some insight and hopefully have you walking away more aware of how you talk to YOURSELF and your children, when you wish for a behavior to change. Whether you have found yourself a little tense, feeling defensive, or you are completely open to this information, learning a little something about yourself is a monumental move. After all that is one of the key principles of conscious parenting…AWARENESS.
If you are wondering what shaming statements sound like, these are some of the common ones I hear:
“You shouldn’t be like that.”
“Big boys don’t act like that. You’re little sister knows how to act better than you.”
“You are being a bad boy/girl.” OR “Don’t be a bad boy/girl.”
“You better change that attitude.”
“Don’t be like that. Stop crying.”
“Why are you crying? You shouldn’t be crying.”
“I don’t care.”
“When you do that you act just like (that person everyone knows you don’t like.)
“You’re wrong for being/thinking/feelings like that (about me).”
When a child (or anyone for that matter) takes their actions to measure their self-worth (and these actions are repeatedly told to be “bad” or “unacceptable”) shame is planted and spreads like a parasitic weed. The message can easily be translated as “I am [insert undesirable quality here]; “rather than what we are REALLY trying to say, “What you did was unacceptable/undesirable/not the best choice.”
When shame is experienced, stress related chemicals, such as cortisol and norepinephrine are released. When that happens, our body responds by going into “fight or flight” mode. This survival mode perpetuates fear and anxiety and our response is either to attack, defend, or freeze. None of the options led to openness and connection. Any positive teaching moment, based on vulnerability, openness to change, and connection, has been long lost.
When we feel “attacked” we get defensive. When we get defensive, we are closed off. When we are closed off, we scream to be heard (either verbally or through our actions). So when I see unhealthy conflict with the families I work with I ask my parents the following questions:
- How do you show your child you accept and love them by who they are (not by what they do/how they behave)?
- If you haven’t expressed this to them today, you can say something like, “I just want you to know that I feel so thankful that you are in my life. I love you just as you are.”
- When you child does something undesirable, how do you focus on their behavior rather than who they are as a person?
- You can led with a genuinely, positive statement first (connection builder) and then address the behavior. For example, “It is very brave of you to speak your mind and express yourself. At the same time, it is not okay to scream at me. If you continue to scream… (Decide if they require consequences or help with emotional regulation and implement either one).”
- How do you practice acceptance when your child does not meet your expectations of “should” and “have to?”
- How do you practice compassion and understanding towards your own mistakes?
- Do you make shaming self-statements like, “I’m not as involved as other moms. I’m a bad mom.” Or do you say something like, “I’m not as involved as other moms and that’s okay. I have a lot of responsibilities. I provide for my children in so many ways and I know they love our play time.”
- What would you prefer your child self-talk develop as? “I am bad” or “I did something I know I shouldn’t have.”
I have found, that through this self-examination parents realize:
- They are stuck in an unconscious mindset that is a combination of “that’s the way I was raised” and not knowing the difference between shame and guilt.
- The beliefs they hold that cause them to make shaming statements.
- Their self-talk is sprinkled with self-shaming statements they truly don’t like, that were taught to them from their own parents’ unconsciousness.
- Their own triggers that make it hard for them to accept their children just as they are.
They also realize that they want so badly for their child to do/be something or another that is neither real to the child nor conducive of a true connection between the two. Once the parents learn to recognize, validate, and accept their child (and of course themselves!) for who they are and honor their qualities, the ones that are easy to flow with and the ones that challenge them to evolve, this is when conflict decreases, shame withers away, and joyous pride and connection emerge.
The blame/shame game is so antiquated anyways. You are so powerful and I SEE you. You took the time to read through this article, to learn to be a better person/parent, and you still haven’t ditched your kids in the desert.
Let’s live empowered, teaching our children that they are seen and heard and loved just as they are.
How Miley Cyrus said it so very true, “Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has those days.” =)