Shame on You!
By Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC
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.
He stood 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 difficult.
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 again.
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
• 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
• 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
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 soon.
“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 a heartbeat.
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, either.
Mark Brandenburg 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, and the author
of the “Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers” Ecourse.
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