Understand Toxic Shame before You Regret It

Shame, according to Merriam-Webster.com, is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.”

But shame isn’t all bad!

Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting says children learn from mild shame to choose culture-based “good” behaviors over bad ones. Consider it the first steps towards a conscience.

Toxic shame is not healthy shame

Toxic shame is the result of experiences repeated over and over during which a person is made to feel unworthy, unlovable, and innately inadequate.

Researcher Karla McLaren, the author of The Art of Empathy, describes these experiences as instances in which “too much controlling shame is forced onto people, and is then integrated into their own self-concept. The problem doesn’t come from the shame itself, but from the fact that the shame is foreign and inauthentic to the person.” (source)

Babies feel no shame. We as parents force shame onto them, either a little or a lot. If it happens often they internalize it, especially when their parents use “controlling shame.”

And, yes, it can start as early as birth.

Controlling shame can seem harmless

Often, “parents shame their children in the pursuit of discipline. These include making a child feel guilty, deficient, or ‘bad’; a source of trouble; just plain dumb. It can include belittling a child, or even something as seemingly benign as rolling your eyes at him or sighing in response to something he’s done.” (source)

Imagine your baby’s had a blowout for the third day in a row. Her clothes are filthy. The car seat needs cleaning. And her wiggling has dirtied your clean shirt.

If your response is, “Awwww, COME ON! Not again!” your child gets the message – she’s done something awful. It’s something she should feel guilty about. She also learns she is a source of frustration for the person she loves the most – you! That’s a lot of guilt for a baby who can hardly control her bowel movements!

Healing mild shame

If you take a breath, accept what’s happened, and smile at your sweet baby you can reconnect with her. Then you can help her heal from the shame.

If you’re playful and tender as you change her diaper (and you apologize!) that short episode of shame will hardly leave a mark.

When it becomes toxic shame

But what if these subtle episodes happen over and over, every day?

– You sigh with frustration when she cries and wants to nurse *again.*

– You roll your eyes and grunt when she spits up and ruins yet another onesie.

– You growl and complain when you pick her up to rock her in the middle of the night for the third time!

If these types of responses exist in Baby’s first year, you can be sure it’ll only get worse as Baby grows older. Just imagine the frustration with a toddler. They run. They make messes. They throw things and spill food.

In the long run, toxic shame erodes a child’s trust in their parents. This leads to insecurity, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

Why do parents shame? 

Here’s what family development expert Dr. Gail Gross says about shame:

“A parent that shames their child is violating all the basic tenants of what parenting is about. Parents are supposed to be their safety net. Shaming children violates their trust in their parents and can lead to permanent, lifelong problems for kids.”

She goes on to say that parents shame because their parents shamed them. More importantly, though:

“When a parent can’t think of anything else to do, they resort to shaming. It’s not really discipline at all. It’s reactive behavior.”

How to avoid toxic shame

First, exercise empathy. Do whatever you have to do in order to empathize more with your little one. Learn about the biological and developmental changes she’s going through. Look at things from her point of view. Meditate. Practice mindfulness. These are all tools of the trade for parents.

Also, Dr. Markham has an excellent post entitled “How to Avoid Shaming Your Child” that’s a must-read.

Finally, Dr. Gross also offers tips, though mainly for older kids, at the bottom of this Parenting.com post.

It’s hard work, we know. Parenting is non-stop, and it’s exhausting. Hang in there and practice, practice, practice. A self-confident, brave, secure child will thank you for it!



Featured image source: www.childpsych.co.za

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