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Shame Can Stick to Children Like Glue

Words have the power to normalize or devastate children.

There’s a song in the movie musical South Pacific that talks about how children are not born with feelings of racism. The song explains that racism is something that has to be taught to them. It’s something that is learned behavior reflecting the views of their parents and the society they live in.

This idea of learned behavior not only applies to racism, but also to other developmental stages. Children who have unique qualities that don’t conform to everyone else are often singled out for ridicule. Perhaps a boy is shy and has trouble being social. A callous adult, or another child, might make fun of the boy’s awkwardness, which can then fill the child with shame. This might become internalized and persist throughout the child’s life, causing him to shrink away from social gatherings and deny himself the closeness of friends and family.

A young girl, who is an extrovert and enjoys being the center of attention, may act out for her friends and family. Then one day her mother tells her to stop being so silly and grow up. This negative attention may make the girl feel ashamed of her behavior and from then on, stifle her free-spiritedness and then go through life feeling as if she can’t fully express herself for fear of ridicule.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the type of shame and repression that people live with when they have been criticized for just being themselves.

Shame can be insidious on a number of levels. First, it can make people feel they are doing something wrong, or that something is wrong with them, even if they are just expressing themselves. Second, it causes them to worry about how they’re being perceived, so they become guarded and self-conscious and lose their freedom of expression. This, in turn, causes them to become less free, always worried about people scrutinizing everything they do. Parents don’t always understand the weight their words have on children.

When it comes to teenagers, there are times they can be extremely difficult and try their parents’ patience. When parents become frustrated, they may say things that they don’t mean. While a parent may say to their adolescent, “I am starting to really not like you,” or, “I don’t know why I had you,” they may not mean what they say. They may just be tired of arguing with the teenager and have become emotionally overwhelmed. However, the teenager doesn’t know their words are out of frustration and may feel the parent is telling them they’re sorry they ever had them. The child may conclude that he or she is a bad person. After all, they may reason that they have to be a bad person for their parent not to like them. This can impact their existence for years to come. Casual criticism by parents can linger and stick to children like glue.

How to make this better? The next time a child shows you a drawing they’ve done, or sings a song for you in an effort to get your attention, recognize that your response may be extremely important toward the child’s willingness to continue to explore these creative efforts. When a child is dancing and an adult makes fun of them, the perceived negativity can completely shut the child down from that activity, or even worse, fill them with shame as if something’s wrong with them.

That is why it is so important for parents to recognize that children are exploring their world. The more encouragement we show them and the more we keep their sense of what’s possible alive, the more likely they will be to explore and find their own passion in life. They will keep alive their joy and their dreams for the future. As parents, I don’t think we can hope for anything more.