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Stop Shaming Your Kids

Probably one of the single most harmful and corrosive emotions humans can feel is shame.

Why do I say it's corrosive? Well because unlike other uncomfortable feelings, shame tends to be sticky. When an emotion is corrosive (from the latin corrodere) it doesn't just harm us or our kids in the moment, it "grinds" or "gnaws" away at us slowly eating away at our sense of self and belonging.

This is why researchers like the Gottmans say that they can predict harm, not only to a person's mental wellbeing when they are consistently shamed, but to their physical wellbeing as well. Shame literally can make us sick because shame cuts deep.

In fact, I bet if you took a moment to sit upright, eyes closed, breathing deeply in through your nose, and thought back to a time when you felt shamed as a child, it wouldn't be hard to feel a visceral discomfort in your body (usually your stomach) in a matter of seconds.

The reason shame is so deeply hurtful is because shame attacks our sense of self and our self-image as it relates to our community. It doesn't just make us feel bad, it makes us feel unworthy of connection. It attacks, in other words, our sense of belonging; going beyond simply feeling bad about something that we've done (usually called guilt), shame makes us feel unsure of our place in our community.

Shame, in short, calls into question whether we belong and are worthy of love and acceptance.

Without going too in depth, I believe, and studies are increasingly showing, that a lack of belonging is at the center of the unprecedented teen/adolescent mental health crisis we're experiencing today.

Now of course not all of that can or should be blamed on parents BUT given the reality of the world our children are growing up into, parenting without shame has never been more important. Evidence supports that, as parents, our unconditional love and acceptance, free from shame, can serve as a protection around our kids throughout childhood and for the rest of their lives.

So how do we parent in such a way as our kids can learn and grow without shame?

Step 1. Do your self work

It's important for all of us to do our own self-work surrounding shame because our own unresolved shame can unconsciously influence how we interact with our kids. When parents haven't worked through their own shame, we inadvertently shame our kids through the language we use or the unconscious expectations we have. This is the way shame is passed down through generations.

For example, parents who have a lot of shame around their own perceived failures or inadequacies often unconsciously project (or transfer) that shame onto their kids. This could manifest in statements like, "Why can't you be more like your brother who always XYZ?" or "Why are you always complaining; you have nothing to complain about?" These types of statements are often verbatim what we were told as kids and because shame is sticky we regurgitate them when we're triggered or overwhelmed by our kids.

Simply put, until you deal with the unresolved shame from YOUR childhood, that shame is always going to "leak" out onto your kids. That's why Dan Seigel writes in the Whole Brain Child

"The parent's own growth and development, or lack of those, impact the child's brain. As parents become more aware and emotionally healthy, their children reap the rewards and move toward health as well."

Step 2. Change your language

When a child does something problematic and subsequently feels not gre

at about it, often the key factor determining whether they will internalize that as guilt (I did something problematic) or shame (I am the problem) has to do with the words or tone that we use.

Obviously there are an infinite number of ways to shame kids and, similar to trauma, some things that may not trigger shame in some kids will certainly trigger shame in their more sensitive peers, but here is a quick acronym (CANDID) I made up to remind ourselves or what types of things we should avoid (beyond the obvious of saying "I am ashamed of you").

  • Comparison- Don't compare your kids (or yourself for that matter) to their peers or siblings. Comparison is almost always going to lead to a sense of shame or discontentment. I could go on and on about this but... just avoid it. We can do better.

  • Appearance- It's really best to avoid commenting on your child's appearance, especially in a critical way. Phrases like "I love your style" can be exceptions to this rule but I can't tell you the number of adults who feel shame about their appearance based on seeds of negativity about their physical image planted in childhood.

  • Natural- Don't criticize or deride your child for natural developmental activities. Whether its throwing food on the floor at one or being way over invested and emotional about a week long romance at 13, when we shame kids for developmentally natural stuff, they inevitably question where there is something "wrong with them".

  • Disgust- Never, ever,

ever, say or even insinuate that you are disgusted with your kids. Disgust is our bodies natural reaction to things we reject for our own safety and survival (rotten food, dead animals, oozing wounds, etc.) When we express disgust toward another human, we communicate to them that we need to avoid them for our own safety. As their primary caregiver, little is more harmful than expressing disgust toward our children.

  • Identity- Two of the most powerful words we have as parents are the words "you are..." When we follow those words with a negative attribute (lazy, ungrateful, stupid, rude, etc.) our children believe us and internalize those attributes as inextricably part of their identity. The words "you are" are almost always going to turn into an identifying statement in the mind of our children and thus we should use them sparingly and with extreme caution.

  • Disappointment- The last one is really just one phrase that was so common in the '80s and '90s that I feel we have to address it (especially in light of Step 1 above): "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed." Disappointment, unlike anger, communicates a failure to meet our expectations not a temporal passing emotion. When we tell our kids they are disappointing us, we are communicating to them that they are at risk of losing their place of belonging... (yes, that's why when your mom said that, it hurt so much more than you might expect it to)

Step 3. Read the next post

So just like every serial tv show we watched when we were growing up, I'm out of time and you're going to have to tune in next week to see how we can resolve to solve the problems we've exposed. In that email I'm going to give you some examples of things we can say as alternatives to the CANDID stuff we should avoid. I'm also going to to lay out some simple ways we can build a culture of resilience and internal validation that will serve as our kid's "Shame Armor" out in the world.

I really wanted to do this all in one blog but when I was over 1000 words only half way through I knew I had to split it up.

So until next week, focus on the first two steps by reflecting on the following (either with a partner, a therapist, in contemplative meditation, or with a journal):

When and for what was I shamed as a child? What unresolved shame am I carrying around?

How often do I say things that could fall into one of the CANDID categories with my kids? Are those things related in any way to what I was shamed for?

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