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Little people, big feelings: How to recognise shame in children

Apr 15,2018 - Last updated at Apr 15,2018

By Sirsa Qursha


Our words carry immense power over our children — and often in negative ways. Shame loosely equals to “I am bad” or “I am not lovable”.

These are messages we get from a young age that have detrimental effects on healthy emotional development. Shame inducing is usually a result of rectifying “bad behaviour” or parents attempting to control their children’s actions. How liberating and positive it would be if children were allowed to make mistakes, learn from them and try again, rather than being shamed for not doing it right or not making the correct choice. Eventually, there is a price that is paid when parents focus on “controlling behaviour” instead of a child’s sense of worth.


‘Good’ vs ‘bad’ shame


Everyone knows that children need to respect social limits. Children also need to develop ways to self-regulate, accept boundaries and hear the word “no”. Once faced with those limits, children start to understand that they live in a world with social rules, and that they have to behave in specific ways; in other words, they start to realise there are forbidden behaviours and those that are acceptable.

A typical example of this would be a child shouting in a restaurant. Parents would automatically ask the child to stop shouting and act in a socially acceptable way. Neighbouring diners might shoot the child a harsh look. Automatically, the child will develop one of the “big emotions” bigger than self-consciousness or embarrassment causing a physical reaction: shame.

If and when they are faced with the word “no” to a specific behaviour, children start to develop “mild shame”, which researcher Dan Siegel states is normal and even healthy for children, as they need to learn how to live in a social world and regulate accordingly. One significant factor, however, also includes his parents’ reaction to the child’s shouting in the restaurant.

Bad shame, or what psychologists call “toxic shame”, develops in the instance that a parent makes the child feel like the child is a bad person. In this instance, the child no longer feels shame on its own, but also feels misunderstood, and not good enough in the eyes of the parent. Over time, if this reaction happens repeatedly, children start to develop toxic shame.

Shame vs self-worth


Children develop self-worth, or a view of themselves and their abilities, through interactions with primary caregivers from a very young age. Yet, oftentimes, even caregivers and teachers with the best of intentions frame statements that result in the child feeling a great amount of shame. Shame can take on many forms and may sound like this:

• When are you going to grow up?

• What is wrong with you?

• Anger and aggression when speaking to children 

• Laughing and mocking children

• Name calling and using offensive language

Shaming children goes hand in hand with punishment and guilt inducing, and that should not be how children learn or grow — as we now know from decades’ worth of research.


What you can 

do as a parent:


Avoiding ridicule — “you’re such a baby” is a classic line adopted by parents but is shame inducing

Not laughing at your child, especially when they are feeling insecure about something that is said about them.

Empathising statements, such as: “You really want another piece of chocolate, but you already have one, why don’t we put it in a special place for you to find tomorrow?” or “You can have a piece of fruit instead.” 

Disciplining, not punishing. This means that you essentially guide your child to an appropriate behaviour. Punishment sends the message that a child is bad. Listening to your child: if and when a child is recounting a story or incident that made the child feel shame, offer empathy instead of denouncing the emotion. This might sound like “I am sure that feeling is very hard for you”, instead of “No, you’re not stupid, ugly or dumb,” or the classic response of “It’s okay”.

Being emotionally available for your child if you decide to enforce discipline that is creating a feeling of shame.

Seeing children for the individuals that they are and valuing their input.

Treating your child how you would want to be treated — with kindness, patience and an appreciation of their worth.

At young ages when children are still developing emotional vocabulary, they communicate how they are feeling through behaviour. Oftentimes, children behave how they feel. If they behave “badly”, that must mean they are feeling “badly”. In these instances, it is worth it for parents, teachers and professionals to pause and think about how to best guide children through their “big feelings”, and through the shame, to reach a point of developing their own competencies and self-worth.


Reprinted with permission from Family Flavours magazine

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