Thoughtful Parenting: Shame on You
Have you ever been told or heard the words, “Shame on you”? As a child, what do you think those words meant to you? Did they mean you’d done something that you shouldn’t have done? Or did they mean to you, as a child, that you, yourself, were bad, unacceptable and unlovable?
When children hear, “Shame on you” as a statement about what they have done, they may feel guilty, depending on their age. When children hear those words as meaning that they, themselves, are bad, they feel shame. When young children feel shame, they drop their chins to their chests and curl up on themselves, much like a punished dog, whose body is hunched over with its tail between its legs.
During their first year or so of life, children become accustomed to their caregivers being loving, nurturing and attuned to them. As children grow older, during their second and third years of life, their relationship with their caregivers changes, by necessity. Adults involved in children’s lives must act as their conscience and limit children’s impulsive and potentially dangerous behavior. Children hear “no” and see adult faces that are frowning and unhappy, if not angry. The child experiences a loss of attunement in a previously safe relationship.
During their early years, children who are frequently shamed suffer changes in their brain development. Their ability to self-regulate is adversely affected. They feel anxious, vulnerable and fearful for their safety. Feeling shunned and expelled from social connectedness are gut-level experiences that cause a child, unconsciously, to question his or her self-identity.
No caring adult in a child’s life would intentionally cause the damage described in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, there are subtle — and not-so-subtle — ways in which adults shame young children. Following are some examples.
- Calling out a child’s name in a group of children to stop an unacceptable behavior.
- Criticizing a child to another adult in the child’s presence.
- Comparing a child negatively to another child.
- Telling a child he or she should know better.
- Telling a child he or she doesn’t deserve a special reward.
- Pointing out to other children one child’s unacceptable behavior.
If you catch yourself doing any of the above damaging actions, there are steps you can take to repair the relationship with the child. Doing whatever you can do to re-attune to the child; making eye contact at the child’s level and expressing caring is one option. Apologizing and hugging the wounded child is another possibility. Reassuring the child that you know they forgot the rule or request, but it’s OK to make mistakes is yet another choice. Parents and other caregivers are resourceful and generally know how to mend a broken connection with a child.
As adults, we need to use empathy in dealing with our little ones. Young children do not know why they behave as they do. We can use our adult brains to speculate on the child’s motive, but empathy is what most young children need most.
A great resource for parents is a book written by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., titled “Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — and Endangered.” An oldie but goody is “The Encouragement Book,” by Don Dinkmeyer, Sr. The “Love and Logic” books by Foster Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay also offer great suggestions.
Chris Young, Ph.D. is a retired licensed psychologist who specialized in children and families. She can be reached at 970-291-9259 for consultation.
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