Mark Brandenburg MA,
“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.
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 in knowing I’d been responsible for
helping him “shove down” big feelings too painful to deal with.
The truth was
I was teaching my
son to feel shame.
How does all of this
happen? How is it that our parenting brings out the “worst” in us?
The dynamics of
shame are fairly simple. They are often at the heart of toxic
relations between parents and children. When we’re unable to change
the behavior of our children, we may have a rush of feelings that
include frustration, humiliation, and anger. Our own sense of being
defective may accompany the sense of shame, and may be related to our
history as a child.
As children, there
were times when we felt misunderstood and mistreated. The feelings of
shame that were generated from those times produced defense mechanisms
that protected us from having to experience those painful moments
When we become
parents, we are constantly reminded of past shame-filled experiences
in our interactions with our children. The shame comes rushing back in
an avalanche of feelings and defenses.
When we’re “in” our
own shame, everything is distorted. When our children make mistakes,
they’re our mistakes. When they appear defective, we feel defective.
We become overly concerned about other people’s opinions, and about
what’s right and wrong.
And in this
avalanche of shame, we lose sight of the most important thing of
all—the needs of our 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
“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 our kids, and it’s ready to rush forward in
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.
We didn’t deserve
shame when we were kids.
Our kids don’t,
MA, CPCC, coaches parents by phone to balance their life and improve
their family relationships. He is an Instructor for the Academy for
Coaching Parents (www.acpi.biz),
and the author of the “Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers”
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