Posted by: coachingparents | February 11, 2009

Shame on You

by Mark Brandenburg

“What are you thinking? Haven’t we talked about this before?” My seven-year-old son looked down at the food that had just spilled on the kitchen floor.

He stood statue-still, as children often do after an accident. The words and tone I’d used were having their impact. He braced himself to fight the tears and prepared to clean things up.

When I thought about it later, I realized the worst moment wasn’t the food hitting the floor. The worst moment was seeing his face hiding the shame and anguish he was feeling. It was realizing I’d been responsible for helping him “shove down” big feelings too painful to deal with.

The truth was difficult. I was teaching my son to feel shame.

So how is it that we can do something like this to our children?

The dynamics of shame are fairly simple. They are often at the heart oftoxic relations between parents and children. When you’re unable to change the behavior of your children, you may have a rush of feelings that include frustration, humiliation, and anger. These feelings have been with you since you were a child, and they are associated with feeling defective in your own childhood.

Most children go through periods in their life feeling misunderstood and mistreated. The feelings of shame that were generated from those times produced defense mechanisms that protected them from having to experience those painful moments again. They are “stored” in your body, but not in conscious awareness.

When you become a parent, you are constantly reminded of past shame-filled experiences in your interactions with your children. The shame comes rushing back in an avalanche of feelings and defenses. When you’re “in” your own shame, everything is distorted. When your children make mistakes, they’re your mistakes. When they appear defective, you feel defective. You can easily become overly concerned about other people’s opinions, and about what’s right and wrong.

And in this avalanche of shame, you can lose sight of the most important thing of all—the needs of your children.

Here are some steps to limit or avoid the impact of shame on your family:

  • Look at your own history of shame, and how it’s triggered by your children. Try to find the irrational thoughts and messages that are getting you into trouble. Get to know these triggers well, and be prepared for them.
  • Get to know your child’s reaction to shame, and how quickly they can reconnect with you after a shaming episode. Never forget that your child wants to be in a positive, loving relationship with you. The sooner you can reconnect after a shaming episode, the better.
  • Tell your children that shaming messages happen, and that most parents (and most kids) say irrational things and act in irrational ways at times. This will help them to process what’s happened to them.
  • Be the first one to initiate better feelings between you and your child after a shaming episode. If it takes awhile for your child to recover, be patient with the process, but don’t stop trying to reconnect.
  • Don’t beat yourself up after you shame your child. This only gets you caught up in the same cycle of shame that you unleashed on your child. Practice the art of being kind and gentle with yourself.
  • My son finished cleaning up the food, and sat back down at the table with a long look on his face. He didn’t look ready to reconnect with his Dad anytime soon.

“Thanks for cleaning up, buddy. If you’re done eating, you can wrestle this big, mean daddy to the ground in the family room.”

After shaking his head, a corner of his mouth curled up. Seconds later, we were doing battle on the family room floor.

This shaming episode was over and the recovery was rapid. But the expression of shame does a great deal of damage to your kids and it’s ready to rush forward in a heartbeat.

Learning more about your own legacy of shame can be the first step towards lessening the frequency of these unconscious reactions. All it takes is a willingness to visit a difficult part of your past, and a determination to leave a better legacy for your own family.

You didn’t deserve shame when you were a kid.

Your kids don’t, either.


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