Written by Kristin Barton Cuthriell, M.Ed, MSW, LCSW
What’ers begun in anger ends in shame. -Benjamin Franklin
Katie knocks over the lamp and her mother responds, “How can you be so stupid!” Tony forgets to bring his basketball to practice again. His father yells in front of the team, “What is wrong with you?” Jimmy pushes his brother and his mother remarks, “You are a bad boy!”
What is so damaging about the installation of shame? Shame is more than feeling bad about a behavior; it is feeling bad about who you are as person.
As parents, we need to remember that the goal of discipline is to address our children’s unacceptable behavior and assist them in correcting it. No matter how angry, frustrated, or tired we may be, our children need to know that they are acceptable, even if their behavior is not. Sometimes our child’s behavior embarrasses us and we may overreact, but we do not want to send a message that they, as a person, are an embarrassment.
When children are shamed by caregivers, their emotional health will suffer.
Research shows a relationship between shame, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Studies also show that shame-based people are more likely to raise shame-based children. recognizing shaming behaviors can be the first step in ending this generational cycle.
There are many ways parents unwittingly shame their child, all of which have long-lasting effects. Here are some of the more common ways in which children are shamed.
- Name Calling/ Labeling: You are such a baby. You are so stupid. You are a bad girl. How can you be so stupid? What an idiot. You can’t do anything right. You are so lazy! When children are disciplined in this way, they may internalize these labels, believe them, carry them into adulthood, tell themselves the same messages, carry out the self-fulfilling prophecy, and possibly pass the same messages on to their children.
- Public Humiliation: We would not appreciate or respect a boss who called us out and embarrassed us in front of our co-workers. Our children are no different and do not deserve to be publicly humiliated. Discipline in private. Don’t embarrass your child because their behavior embarrassed you. Remember you are the adult and they will learn from your example.
- Body Language: We really do communicate more through our body language than we do through our words. Watch your body language. When you roll your eyes at your child, the message that you are sending to them is that they are stupid and that you do not care about the things that they have to say.
- Sarcasm: The definition of sarcasm is tearing of the flesh. Sarcasm is contempt in disguise. Avoid it at all costs.
- Comparing: Why can’t you be more like your brother? Johnny can do it, what is wrong with you? Your sister would have never done that! Children need to grow up recognizing their own strengths, not comparing themselves to others. If you compare them to others, they will spend their life comparing themselves to others.
Discipline Without Shame
Whether your children know it or not, they crave consistency and structure. It makes them feel safe when things are predictable. They need to know what is acceptable and what is not. Children need consistent consequences when they disregard the rules, and they need praise when they make healthy choices. All of this can be done without shame.
If you would like to know more about toxic shame and building a healthy family, please check out John Bradshaw’s best-selling books, Bradshaw On: The Family and Healing the Shame That Binds You.