Shame Works to Control Kids…and That’s a Problem.

Parents don't realize what shame does to kids, or how to repair the damage.

Posted Aug 18, 2019

Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash
Shame strengthens the inner critic.
Source: Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

“How could you? Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

“How could you feed that to your child?”

These are the words of shame. Most of us grew up hearing messages of shame from authority figures. Because it resonates with our deepest fears, shame gets a reaction. We either try to prove our accusers wrong by complying, or we rebel.

No matter how much they hated being shamed themselves, most parents have used shame to manage their kids. “The problem is that shame can be very effective in the short term in getting kids to behave. That's why it's so ubiquitous,” Dr. Richard Schwartz of Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department told me when we discussed it. And he’s right⁠—shame works.

Shame works when parents don't have time for other methods, but the results are a problem.

As modern parents, we live increasingly pressured lives. Who has time for the time-consuming methods parents are told to use now? Sometimes we just need to get out the door.

But Dr. Schwartz points out the problem, “People don't really realize the consequences internally for the kid when they lead with [shame]. And those consequences include the vulnerable parts of the kid feeling worthless or bad, and then having to get away from that with some kind of extreme firefighter activity.”

"Parts" are how Schwartz, discoverer of the Internal Family Systems Model of psychology (IFS), talks about the sub-personalities within us (explained in more depth here). The idea is that, on the inside, we operate more like a family than an individual, with different parts that have roles meant to keep us safe.

Exiles are vulnerable parts that hold our hurts and shame, often from a young age. That pain can be so intense that other parts come to the rescue. That’s when firefighters show up with extreme behaviors that distract us from pain. A firefighter might come up screaming and hitting or go off and binge-eat later.

When a kid’s firefighter gets activated by shame from their parent, Schwartz explains what happens next: “And then, feeling ashamed of that activity and having a critic attack them for that and try to get them to use willpower to control themselves, and so they become brutally critical and so on. And then that gives more shame to those other exiles... and becomes a vicious cycle that way.”

So the child’s inner critic becomes more and more powerful. “And most parents don't get the damage they are doing with shame that way, because all they see is ‘my kids comply,’” Schwartz told me.

Don't our kids need to feel emotionally safe?

I thought about the way neuroscience research has been over-interpreted to parents with the idea that kids need to feel safe all the time. Parents get the idea that we can’t just say no to them, and they can’t see our displeasure. We can’t ever be flawed and lose it a little bit.

“Yes,” said Schwartz, “The helicopter parenting and all that. There’s a lot to be said about that. It’s possible to be very forceful with kids, with colleagues, with your spouse and even confrontative, but do it with an open heart… If you’re in self.”

In the IFS model, self with a capital "S" is the core of a person (discussed here). A few of the remarkable qualities of the self are confidence, courage, and clarity, which Dr. Schwartz explained are key to what he calls self-led parenting.

“So, you know, I have three daughters, and when I was raising them, there were many times I had to take a stand and say, ‘No, this isn't OK.’ And if I did that from some critical part, there would be a sting of shame that would come in with how I said it, the tone of voice, and sometimes even the words. But if I could do it from self, they would hear the message, ‘This isn't OK,’ but they wouldn't hear the shame, because my heart was still open, and they could still feel the love,” Schwartz recalled.

“I think that's been a distortion: that feeling safe means never saying no or never getting upset,” Schwartz confirmed for me.

He suggested an alternative approach centered around the repair: “So you're gonna get upset with your kid. And you're going to lose it, and you're going to shame them at times. And you can then go and use that as a trailhead and work it, and ideally, that's what you'll do so it doesn't keep happening.” (I explored this idea in my last article.)

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash
Parents feel put upon now they everybody is supposed to be so nice all the time.
Source: Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

His advice on how to repair our mistakes with our kids is this: “But after it happens, if you're aware of it, and you catch it, then you could also go back to the kid and say, ‘You know, I'm aware of that this part of me just took over, and I am sorry that I let that happen. And my job is a parent is not to let that happen, so I'm going to work on it. And you still have to get up on time and go to school.’ But said from an open-hearted place.”

Why do we struggle with saying no to our kids?

If our selves are such great leaders, why do we struggle with simply saying no to our kids? IFS posits that most of us live our adult lives not from our self, but from a manager (a part that tries to keep us in line).

I mentioned this, suggesting that we often sound like disapproving managers when we correct our kids. Dr. Schwartz agreed, “Most of us aren't aware of the tone of voice we're using.”

“We feel put upon when our kid does something, particularly now that you are supposed to be so nice all the time. When it comes to having to not be nice and to discipline, they [parents] are put upon, and they feel that they are doing something wrong. They get aggravated that the kids are making them do it. And that brings more of their tone.”

As we live in the "ShouldStorm" of impossible messages about our parenting, it’s good to know that there is a better way. The 3S method is one way that parents can begin moving into a “self-led” place with their kids.