What is Shame?

The antithesis of growth in parenting is fear that we are doing something wrong in how we are interacting with, relating to, and guiding our children. Fear stunts our parenting confidence, which in turn can reflect in our relationships with our children. An antidote to this fear that we are not doing enough or doing the right things as a parent is gaining knowledge so we can make informed decisions.

rita brhelAbout the Author

Rita Brhel, BS, CLC, API Leader, is the Executive Editor and Publications Team Coordinator of Attachment Parenting International. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Counselor and a freelance writer. She lives with her husband and 3 children near Hastings, Nebraska, USA.

Shame is one of those areas of parenting that can bring on anxiety in even the most experienced mothers and fathers among us. What exactly causes our children to feel shame? How can we avoid crossing the line in how we discipline our children so as to not raise them with self-identifying messages of being “bad,” “wrong,” “stupid,” or any other word synonymous with unworthiness. We don’t want to shame our children, and we definitely don’t want our children to grow up with a sense of shame about who they are and what they do.

We know instinctively that a shame-based view of oneself is implicated in a host of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, as well as self-harm, eating disorders, addictions, other poor coping skills, and even physical illness. We see the effects of emotional trauma through brain scans that show variations in the shape and connectivity of affected socio-emotional and cognitive areas of the brain,  Adverse Childhood Experience studies, heart function and stress hormone level tests, and so much more in the ever-building body of research that communicates that psychology is an essential feature of parenting.

What is Shame?

Shame is basically a moral sense of right versus wrong, gone awry. We all want our children to make wise choices. How we go about teaching them to do so makes the difference between them being able to learn and grow from their less wise decisions while keeping their self-worth intact, or internalizing self-reinforcing judgement that she did not choose the right way.

It’s important to recognize that child temperament is an often underestimated, but powerful, influence in how children internalize the messages we give them through our interactions with them. Some children are innately more sensitive than others and an experience that may not create a lasting impression of shame on one child could very well do so with a more sensitive child.

A complicating factor is, who decides what is right and what is wrong? Moral standards, set by each individual person, is by nature subjective because each person is unique. So by drawing the battle lines between right and wrong based on our own subjective thoughts, and then reprimanding our children for having different thoughts that may not follow exactly in our thought patterns, could be punishing a child for being who he uniquely is.

It is important to set limits on behavior and it is important to instill within our children a sense that there are wise and unwise choices, but how do we do this without also ingraining shame?

Guilt vs Shame

Let’s first understand that shame is a normal human emotion. It naturally appears, alongside guilt, somewhere between ages 4 and 7, and a key sign of its development is that a child develops the ability to lie. Lying is a self-preservation behavior that children try out — and may learn to resort to — to avoid the painful emotions of guilt and shame.

Guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt is another painful emotion, but it arises out of a feeling that one’s actions have violated her own internal values. Shame instead is a sense that one has violated external values, that of his social group, with his way of being.

Guilt and shame can be closely associated, since humans are social beings and therefore our sense of self is deeply connected with our sense of belonging. We want to belong — it is one of the key 6 stages of attachment to others — and therefore the feeling of social rejection can then extend into how we view ourselves. However, while we may feel guilty for hurting another person’s feelings, we feel shame when we feel that inside we are not worthy of another person’s love.

But Just Because Shame is Normal…

Shame may be a normal human emotion to certain social situations, but it can be a very painful emotion. Shame, unchecked, can easily morph into an unhealthy state felt at the very core of who a person perceives herself to be. By its very nature, shame encourages the person to keep what makes him feel ashamed of himself as a secret from others and that only makes the shame grow.

We want to encourage our children to talk about all of their painful emotions. Shame, like joy, has to be expressed. Painful emotions, like shame, especially must be expressed and worked through alongside a supportive parent or partner in order for the affected person to fully process it and incorporate the experience into their personal story — or else, that experience of shame could be “walled off,” instinctively, in the mind to protect the person.

But not being able to access and work through the pain doesn’t keep shame “walled off” and separated from the rest of the being — rather, it grows and begins to act on its own.

The result of unprocessed “normal” shame is a pervasive and persistent feeling of shame at the core, so much so that it begins to define how the person sees herself. This is referred to as “toxic” shame — a pathological feeling of shame that covers the person’s true identity. It not only covers it, but it can take it over. Think of toxic shame like a cancer of self-worth. It is very difficult to treat, and can be fatal — metaphorically emotionally, literally in the case of suicide.

How to Protect Our Children From Toxic Shame

Because shame is a normal human emotion, all children will likely feel this painful emotion at some point in their lives. It is quite possible that — because all children are unique in who they are, how they think, and how they process emotions — that even the most loving, attached parents will induce feelings of shame in their child, at some point.

It’s important to realize there is a difference between shame and toxic shame. Shame, as a normal human emotion, can be painful but when the child is supported in processing the shaming situation, it is quite possible for the feeling of shame to be simply added to his repertoire of experiences — just as his feelings of rage during a toddler tantrum were — without shame extending into the core of his being.

Toxic shame, on the other hand, is when shaming becomes habitual in his life and is not allowed to be processed with a supportive person — there is no one to help guide him through his feelings, and therefore, there is no way he can know how to process his feelings of shame in a healthy way. Because of this, his feelings of shame are more likely to grow and to encapsulate who he is. He will be less likely to find a way to express his shame and redirect it away from his emotional core.

There are certain ways of relating to and disciplining our children that are less likely to induce a feeling of shame. Positive discipline — indeed all of Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting — are research-backed parenting behaviors behind secure, strong family attachments. Shame, by its very nature being an emotion borne out of a feeling of not belonging, strongly accompanies a feeling of not being securely attached. Strengthening the parent-child attachment will make shame less able to take hold in that relationship — the interactions based on promoting strong attachments simply do not involve shame-based exchanges.

Of course, no parent is perfect. We all have our “off” days and our moments where we relate to our child that does not promote secure attachment. But I encourage you not to be afraid of these moments. Among the myriad benefits of Attachment Parenting is that when a relationship is based on this trusting, empathic, nurturing, peaceful approach to parenting, if we happen to step off the path during an “off” moment of less sensitive responsiveness, it’s so easy to find our way back again. We just follow our hearts — and then be sure to talk through any strong emotions about the experience to help her express and process her feelings of hurt, anger, fear, and possibly shame in a healthy way.

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