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How We Shame Our Children and How to Stop

The shame game.

Key points

  • Shame is toxic, but it doesn’t have to be present in your family.
  • Shame communicates to the child that they are not good, are a problem, and can’t do anything about it.
  • Shame breeds a spirit of defeat, disillusion, and distrust that will lead a child to shut down, and the relationship will erode.
Source: Anemone123/Pixabay

As a therapist, one of the things that I encounter every day in the office is the effects that shame has on the people that come to see me.

As adults, we find ways to cope with the shame that can bind us, and if we have the means, we go to a professional to help us work out those patterns of thought that often develop in childhood.

Since internalized shame can start in childhood, parents of young children have a wonderful opportunity to be on the lookout for ways to protect their children from the cycle of shame that can trap us all.

What is shame?

Shame is frequently confused with guilt. Sometimes it is even used interchangeably. However, there is a big difference between the two. When it comes to shame and guilt, guilt is the feeling you get when you did something wrong or thought you did something wrong. On the other side, shame is when you feel that your whole self is wrong. You feel “bad” or “unworthy” as a result. Young kids can go further and feel that they are unlovable when a culture of shame is cultivated in a household.

How do I parent without shaming?

Preventing a culture of shame in your home and your children is essential. That does not mean, however, that you cannot discipline or correct your children. They must be corrected to develop a healthy sense of right and wrong. But we must prevent them from feeling as though they are wrong or flawed at their core.

So how do we do this? The quickest way to describe what to do is by describing what not to do. Some very common yet very harmful phrases that parents can use with their children create a culture of shame. I’ve listed some examples below.

  • “You’re the reason ________ is so bad.” (ex. Our marriage, our finances, our house, your siblings, etc.)
  • “We spend so much _____________ on you.” (ex. Time, money, energy, etc.)
  • “Why can’t you just _______.” (ex. Remember things, do things right, be like your sibling, act your age, etc.)

If you see yourself in these comments, don’t despair but ask yourself if this is what you want to communicate to your child. What your child hears in these moments is that they are not good. They are a problem and can’t do anything about it. This will breed a spirit of defeat, disillusion, and distrust that will lead a child to shut down, and the relationship will erode.

Parents usually get here because they are at their wit's end and don’t know how to get their child to do…something! But there are other ways to inspire action than shaming. Shaming is the quickest way to ensure you won’t get what you want in the relationship and with your child.

Turning It Around

Some initial tips can get you started, but professional help should be considered to prevent long-term effects.

In the meantime, work on cultivating a sense of belonging instead of shaming your child for their behaviors. Cultivate a relationship with your child, so they want to be in harmony with you.

This is built over soothing conversations, quality time doing things that matter to your child, listening without judging or advising, validating feelings, and supporting their dreams.

In addition, begin to examine how you view your child. Do you view them as new humans trying to figure out their place in the world? Or do you view them as an enemy who is hellbent on making your life miserable? One of these viewpoints will engender grace in your heart. The other will set you up for battle before every interaction.

Suppose you are struggling with wanting a relationship with your child. In that case, I encourage you to seek professional help from a therapist who can walk you through more effective and healthy parenting strategies for you and your child's wellbeing.

Shame is toxic, but it doesn’t have to be present in your family.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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