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The Psychological Effects of Shaming Children

The risks of public shaming hold lessons for all parents.

The news of a teen girl’s apparent suicide after a public shaming incident starts the summer off on a somber note, and parents everywhere should take notice. As Jezebel reports, the girl was shamed by her father in a video which shows her long hair chopped off as punishment for a transgression. The video was uploaded onto YouTube, and days later, the girl jumped off a highway overpass.

Were the suicide and the video linked? Some think so, but the local newspaper reports the girl herself uploaded it to YouTube, and that it wasn’t taped by her father for shaming purposes, that the girl had other issues weighing on her mind, and that the ensuing media storm has its facts wrong.

Whether or not this case was a case of a parent shaming his child, there has certainly been an uptick in shaming videos in the past few years, corresponding to the uptick in social media usage in our society.

One note about teen suicide: each situation is uniquely different, and there are an infinite number of factors, many of which may never be entirely known or understood. For any parent reading this article, if you suspect your child may be thinking suicidal thoughts, do not wait; seek help from your child’s school guidance counselor, pediatrician, mental health provider, faith leader, or another professional immediately.

Obviously, this is a case of extremes, but there are lessons for all parents in this tragedy. The most important is that shaming teaches the wrong lesson.

No doubt what most parents who inflict shame on their child are trying to do is raise their child’s consciousness of the potential consequences of their actions. In behavioral terms, shaming would be considered an aversive technique.  Basically, the principle is that the shame is a negative consequence of an unwanted behavior, so then the person avoids doing that behavior in the future because of the aversive outcome. But the painful feelings that shame unleashes in a young person’s mind are the real problem.

In many children, their feelings are magnified well beyond the proportions of us adults, who have perspective of more years. Shame, in particular, is felt keenly by any human, and so its magnification can be exponential in children and teens. The sheer weight of these feelings can be too heavy, too unrelenting. A child or a teen doesn’t understand that these feelings will get easier and even end at some point.  

Shaming also runs the risk of being far out of proportion with the behavior you’re trying to stop, and that’s because embarrassment is largely defined by the individual. It’s impossible to externally control it.

So what are some options for discipline that parents can use instead of shame?

  • Allow the natural consequences of their actions to manifest, instead of the contrived consequences that occur through shaming. Often, a parent doesn’t even need to do anything, just monitor the situation and help your child understand how the unpleasant things that are happening are connected to their actions.
  • Positive reinforcement of the behaviors you DO want to see. It’s hard in the heat of the moment for a parent to stop and focus on other behaviors, especially when it seems there’s a problem. However, being able to reinforce those positive behaviors later that day or the next WILL have an effect and will pay dividends in the future.
  • That said, parents should not neglect to enforce limits consistently. If your child broke a rule, a negative consequence that is immediate, specific and within the context of the problem is appropriate to undertake. Take care not to overreact out of frustration.
  • Act like a coach. It can be hard with teens, but if you take them aside and privately explain that some of their behaviors are concerning, being very specific, you may be able to rock them back on their heels and make them think about how to behave differently next time. Doing this in private is important, because your teen needs to be able to hear and consider your words without the fear of “losing face” with their peers, which is another reason why public shaming can backfire badly.
  • Revisit your priorities, and potentially disengage from behaviors that are out of your control. Take a step back and consider whether the behavior you’re worried about is really that worrisome. Now, do not get us wrong, there are plenty of teen behaviors that are – and should be – concerning to parents. But there are also many stupid things that teens do simply because they are teens and they are still learning their way through life. Recognize that teens are establishing their independence from parents and family which is a perfectly normal and healthy process.  While teens may miss the mark at times, allow them increased independence where you can to help satiate that normal and natural yearning.
  • Insist on apologies and restitution, when appropriate. If your teen’s behavior causes harm or inconvenience to another, then a follow-up apology and restitution should always be implemented. Saying sorry, making it right, forfeiting allowance to repair or replace something, all of these forms of restitution are natural consequences, as well, and can reinforce that this behavior should not be repeated.

The harmful effects of shaming can be long-lasting, but it’s always a parent’s instinct to want to stop or reverse their child or teen’s bad behaviors. Fortunately, those instincts can be fulfilled in other ways while still allowing the teen to slowly increase independence. Those tactics should be seen as long-term parenting investments, and thus may take a bit more time to take effect, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as potent as a public shaming. The benefit is that they don’t carry with them the harmful effects that shaming often has, and the positive aspects will last long into the future. 

Image: Embarrassed Woman by Michael (Flickr: IMG_4240.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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