Parenting practices often use shame based messages that are rooted in the perception of what that child should or should not do rather than on what would authentically empower the child. We need to shift our attention from communicating shame to empowering authenticity. A should-based message is a shame-based message. We use these messages with ourselves as well. How many times a day do you think, “I should be doing this” or “I should feel…” Shoulding your child is shaming your child. Shoulding yourself is shaming yourself. Even more, every time you should yourself or a child you are creating dysregulation. Since you are shoulding yourself, you are challenging yourself. This stimulates your nervous system to respond to a perceived affront. You send your nervous system into a fight, flight, or freeze (fall asleep) response. It is important to look at how you talk with and discipline your child to see if the messages you are sending as a parent include shame based messages. Shaming children is not an effective discipline strategy and has negative affects on child development. This article will provide strategies on how to stop shaming your child and yourself.
A should message is not in alignment with an individual’s authentic self. A should message is a comparison between who you are and a fantasy version of who you think you should be. For children, a should message from a caregiver is a comparison between the authentic self and who someone else expects them to be.
You are who you are, own your space and live in congruence with your authentic self. Nurture your child’s developing self and empower his or her authenticity. Nurture your abilities as a parent to stop shaming your child and offer discipline that will empower child development.
Neuroscience of Shame
Neuroscience shows us that shame stems from the brain. Shame is felt from the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain where our emotional responses arise.
Shame has its roots in evolutionary biology and is an aspect of our ability to maintain social relationships. Mild feelings of shame are universal and have developed as an evolutionary mechanism for regulating behaviors to live in a social context. However, these shame messages only serve to further child development in a positive way if they are paired with reassurances or repairs rather than punishment. Instinctive internal feelings of shame when followed by punishment, can lead to toxic shame.
Should messages are not inherently bad but rather provide internal feedback that you can be conscious of as a way to aspire towards authenticity.
Shifting Away From Shame Based Parenting
Shame messages as part of parenting are often aimed at guiding children towards appropriate behavior. This goal can be achieved without the use of shame. The following are simple strategies on how to stop shaming your child.
Children are inherently interested in learning what behaviors are appropriate for social settings. Rather than shaming the behavior you can explain how the behavior affects others and offer redirection or guidance. This allows children to build empathy and a strong foundation for how to act in the future.
Take the shoulds out! This is simpler than you think.
Strive to understand the communication that is happening in the behavior before you should or shame your child. Challenging behavior can be difficult to deal with. It is spontaneous in nature which can lead to an automatic reaction from a caregiver. This reaction can be a statement (sometimes yelled) that the child should not be behaving in such a way. Children hear that message and feel confused. Why shouldn’t they behave that way? Why are they feeling shamed for behaving in a way that felt natural to them?
There is wisdom and communication in all behavior and we can redirect inappropriate behavior while honoring this wisdom.
For example, a child who has just bitten another child is communicating a strong emotion. This emotion can be anything from feelings of frustration to an overwhelming need to get that other child to move away. Regardless, the action of biting was a natural, brain/body-based response to external stimuli. The child bit because he or she did not have an alternative strategy for communication. The child was being authentic and acting on his or her intuition.
The shift: You shouldn’t bite vs. We don’t bite. We……(fill in the blank)
By taking the should out of the statement and simply saying, “We don’t bite,” you are offering a message that tells the child what the appropriate behavior is. You can follow this up by giving an alternative behavior that the child can use in the future. By shifting your parenting language away from a should message you are respecting your child and guiding them towards appropriate behavior, without the use of shame.
Toxic shame occurs when a child experiences frequent shaming experiences without repair in his or her early childhood development. Repair refers to when the individual who gave the shaming message apologized or reassured the child in any way. Even a seemingly simple smile can offer reassurance to a child. When repair has taken place the child is able to draw constructive meaning from the feelings of shame that will guide future behavior.
Toxic shame has the potential to undermine the confidence of children over the span of their lives. This can lead to the development of coping mechanisms such as disembodiment, numbing of emotions, and substance abuse.
It is never too late to repair your relationship with your child after an accidental shame slip. Parenting is a practice, being a perfect parent is unattainable and unrealistic. All that is required of you is that you are authentic and do your best. Do your best to stop shaming your child and work towards repairing and empowering your relationship.
Below are two interconnected guidance offerings that bolster children’s authentic self-confidence and provide a buffer to shame.
Inspire Intuition & Voice Your Feelings
One of the strongest ways to empower a child’s ability to live authentically is to nurture his or her intuition. In order to live authentically, a child must listen to intuitive truth instead of listening to what others think the truth should be
You can strengthen your child’s intuition by helping him or her to learn to honor intuitive wisdom. This can be as simple as periodically asking your child to share how his or her body feels. By this I do not just mean feelings of health but all possibilities of feelings, including emotions and feelings of energetic openness or constriction. When your child shares these things with you, reaffirm his or her words by respecting the courage to listen to intuition.
Another powerful way to empower a child’s intuition is to be authentic with yourself. When you are authentic, your thoughts, words, and actions are congruent. You are your child’s greatest teacher and your child will model what he or she sees you do. A child who has consistent experiences with an authentic adult will learn how to make sense of the world because there has been consistency between what the child feels, hears, and sees. This means that it is absolutely okay for you to voice your feelings. It is entirely okay for you to feel upset or overwhelmed and to share this with your child.