- Guilt and shame are experienced by everyone, but uncontrolled shame can lead children to think they are bad.
- Discussing shame is key in decreasing its negative impact.
- Parents can begin to normalize the feeling by being more open with their children about their experience with shame.
While often used interchangeably, guilt and shame are two different emotions and are worthy of a deeper understanding by parents and others who care for children. Guilt results in children feeling responsible for having done wrong and causes them to place the badness in their behavior instead of on themselves. Guilt is an okay” emotion to experience. Shame, on the other hand, leaves children feeling bad about their mistakes and results in them believing they are a bad person. Even though feeling shame is normal, if left unchecked, children who experience shame are at risk of isolating, hiding, and suppressing parts of themselves and believing they are the problem.
For parents, recognizing the differences between guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, and shame is crucial in understanding the short- and long-term implications of these emotions in their children.
Here’s a quick guide to help clarify the differences:
- Guilt: “I did something wrong”
- Humiliation: “I’ve been treated unfairly”
- Embarrassment: “I’ve made a common mistake”
- Shame: “I am a bad person”
The experience of shame is also influenced by personality predispositions.
Guilt-Prone vs. Shame-Prone Personalities
Guilt-prone personalities identify shame as temporary while shame-prone personalities see the emotion as never-ending, creating a lingering, hopeless feeling. Excessive shame over time is positively related to anxiety disorders such as:
- Social phobia
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
As you can see, shame strikes at the heart of how children see themselves and can be quite destructive. Fortunately, there are ways that parents can help prevent the negative impact of shame:
1. Discussing and Normalizing Shame
The two parts of experiencing shame are acting and discussing. When acting on shame, we are prone to silence, secrecy, and judgment. Not discussing shame results in hopelessness. Over time, experiencing shame can undermine normal growth and development, especially in young children. By discussing shame, opening up to others about our experiences, we are encouraged to practice empathy, self-compassion, and vulnerability. For example, when experiencing shame, a parent who resists the desire to retreat and isolate and, instead, discusses the experience with a trusted family member is modeling behavior that encourages children to do the same.
It is not possible for shame to exist in the light, which places great value on discussing experiences of feeling shame.Through conversations we h ve with social connections, shame becomes less defining in our lives.
Although there is harm in repeated cycles of shame, the emotion itself is normal. In fact, feeling shame offers important evolutionary and social experiences. Anyone with the ability to connect with others will inevitably experience shame. It is important that we remain mindful of our response to shame and how we discuss the experience.
2. Identifying and Building Resilience Against Shame
Children quickly learn to refrain from behaviors that leave them feeling ashamed and ostracized. They do so to protect themselves from the uncomfortable feeling. When faced with such situations, parents may inadvertently reinforce avoidance by encouraging their children to refrain from those behaviors. For example, a parent who suggests to their child to wear more “gender appropriate clothing” after the child is teased at school is inadvertently encouraging the child to refrain from the behavior. While the intention is to protect the child, over time, it may leave the child feeling that there is something wrong with them. Rather, parents are encouraged to learn what behaviors cause their child to isolate, openly discuss the experience, and prevent the child from isolating.
Over time, shame can become intergenerational. Common themes in shame-based families include control, perfectionism, blame, and a low tolerance for mistakes.
Other identifiers of shame in an individual include:
- Feeling worthless, damaged, or not good enough
- Being a harsh self-critic
- Having anger outbursts
- Showing signs of addiction
Parents can build resilience in children by demonstrating empathy and understanding. To do so, parents can begin by helping children identify physical symptoms that are brought on by emotion. Parents can then help the child identify, or name, the emotion.
Next, parents are encouraged to talk openly with their children about their emotions. Additionally, incorporating ongoing discussions with children on topics that may be deemed shameful is crucial. The most successful way to avoid shame in topics of sex, body image, school, and disappointments is to have open conversations about them.
3. Setting Boundaries
Setting boundaries is key to ensuring the well-being of children. Children can react to unidentified or unknown emotions in a way that is hurtful to themselves or other family members. In such cases, strongly communicated boundaries are necessary. For example, some children are prone to lashing out verbally and physically when experiencing shame. Here, a parent can vow not to further shame the child. Parents are encouraged to communicate appropriate boundaries by stating, “We don’t throw things or hit when we’re upset; That is not how we respond in our family.” By providing an appropriate response to the experience of shame, parents not only help the child identify the emotion but also normalize the emotions and limit behaviors that may be harmful.
It is important for parents to remember that no one is perfect. Prioritizing empathy and the acceptance of emotions is crucial to creating an environment that minimizes the negative consequences of an otherwise normal emotion—shame.
About the Author
Kerry Horrell, Ph.D., is a staff psychologist and youth division coordinator at The Menninger Clinic. Her clinical expertise includes the treatment of shame and trauma, with a particular focus on self-compassion, vulnerability, and mindfulness.