I vividly remember that burning hot sensation rise through my body and my burning hot face as the teacher stopped in her tracks, turned to face me, pointed her finger, and asked me a question that I did not even hear because I was so embarrassed. Under the glare of the entire class, I fumbled and stumbled trying to make myself invisible. After what felt like an eternity, her question finally gave way to instruction – “Perhaps next time you should try listening instead of distracting those around you who are trying to learn.”
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I was that chatty kid, so holding back my word count was like holding back the tide. Chatting has since become my job but that day I learned a powerful lesson. I learned that whatever that hot feeling was, I hated it, and I would do everything in my power to never feel it again. I have since found out the name for that feeling, it’s called shame. I know it well because I have experienced it many times since that day and I have spent a good part of my life running from it so it never catches me out again.
Let’s talk about shame
Setting out to avoid the sting of shame was a good plan if it had actually worked. But it turns out that life is chock-full of it. Even as an adult, shame follows us around in every arena of life in the form of mucking up that speech, missing out on that promotion, having that credit card declined, missing that deadline, losing that game, failing that test, being frowned upon by other parents or being told off by the school for our child’s behaviour. And on it goes.
If you are unfamiliar with the feeling of shame, you might otherwise recognise it as that feeling you get when you want to run away and hide, or when your self-esteem takes a dive or when you lash out at others. You might also recognise shame as that feeling you get just before numbing out, ignoring or hiding from the people in your world. It’s normally not a great feeling so instead of feeling it, we often try and pick up something else to feel instead. Most times we prefer to get angry instead of feeling that hot hideous shame.
So what has this got to do with parenting?
What’s the big deal here? What has this got to do with parenting? The big deal here is that if we parent out of that place of shame, we will find ourselves taking our shame out on our kids. And this isn’t great for their self-esteem. When our shame is running the show, our reasonable and rational self often exits the room and our critical, annoyed, angry and disconnected self turns up for our kids instead.
Weirdly, although we hate our own shame, we often use it on our kids without even realising it. We don’t intentionally shame our kids but it does get us results. Like cooperation. In our parenting we use shame like a tool for compliance. “What were you thinking?” or, “I am going to have to tell your father about this” or, “Are you a baby? Can’t you do it yourself?”
At times our shaming can even sound like comparisons about what other kids can or can’t do, “Dylan doesn’t mind running the cross country. What’s your problem?” or, “Why can’t you use your manners like Dylan does?” Shame is a powerful way to motivate our kids’ behaviour but beware it has an almighty sting in its tail which can be crippling for our kids’ self-esteem.
What are the effects of shame on our kids?
Kids who risk being shamed by the big person in their life either just quit trying for fear of getting it wrong, or work too darn hard trying to please us that they become a little fixated on getting it right. In both instances, this puts way too much stress on their developing brains and opens the door to anger and anxiety.
Using shame as a parenting tool can be especially tough for a quiet, shy, or introverted kid, “If you don’t talk to people, they won’t like you” or, “If you’re not friendly, you won’t have any friends”. To put it bluntly, the effects of shaming our kids are far-reaching emotionally, mentally and relationally.
What does parenting out of our shame look like?
When we parent out of our own shame it looks like totally disconnecting from our child who is having a meltdown in the supermarket, or barking at our child for not playing ‘nicely’ at playgroup, or being highly irritated with our child for not playing their best on the football field. Their behaviour kicks off that shameful feeling in us that has us retaliate in a hurtful way to our kids, “What did you think you were doing on that field?” or, “If you play like that again you won’t have any friends” or, “That’s it, I have had it with you.”
If this is all new to you, don’t worry. If you feel shame, welcome to the club. If you do not feel shame, it might be cleverly hiding under perfectionism or anger. Please take heart, it’s not all bad. We can learn to walk with our shame in a healthy way – it’s called self-awareness. When we use it well it can help us grow into mature and well-regulated humans.
So next time your shame pops up, instead of fighting against it, trying walking with it like an old friend. Have a quiet word to yourself along the lines of, “I might have blown it this time, but I am doing my best” and choose to protect your kids from wearing your shame because they are probably doing their best as well.
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