The corrosive effects of shame


Shame on you. This simple phrase is a timebomb. One way to interpret it is, “I place shame on you.” Almost like a curse. Another interpretation — the more traditional — is, “How dare you? How dare you stray so far from convention? How dare you do something so vile, repugnant, despicable, and inhuman?”

Shaming is the purview of elders. Siblings and peers do not shame. Only parents, adults and individuals in authority can dispense it. Shaming establishes hegemony. The shamer assumes the air of an omniscient creature–his word becomes the last word. Shaming presents pocket morality at the elbow. Again, the shamer becomes the colossus striding the world.

Shaming is abusive

Karyl McBride, Ph.D., writes a blog called “The Legacy of Distorted Love.” In a 2010 post she writes, “When children are emotionally or psychologically abused, they grow up feeling unloved, unwanted, and fearful. Normal development is interrupted and it sends the wounded child into exile.”

Robert Caldwell, a Maryland-based psychotherapist, offers the following synopsis of the effects of shame. “Shame is the inner experience of being ‘not wanted.’ It is feeling worthless, rejected, cast-out. Guilt is believing that one has done something bad; shame is believing that one is bad. Shame is believing that one is not loved because one is not lovable. Shame is the worst possible thing that can happen, because shame, in its profoundest meaning, conveys that one is not fit to live in one’s own community.”

Why parents shame

Ostensibly, parents shame their children to punish, discipline or instruct. What most parents fail to realize is the message gets lost in the delivery. Children view parents as all-powerful. They are providers, protectors and the only true stabilizing influence in a child’s life. When a parent says, “How could you forget to put out the cat? It’s the only thing you have to do at night? What’s wrong with you?” What the child may hear is, “How can you be so stupid?” or “Can’t you do anything right?” Kevin Cooper, a family and marriage therapist, writes, “Children inherently view their caretakers as omniscient and consequently the repeated failure of parents to hear and honor their children’s feelings and needs is interpreted by them as an indication of their own inadequacy.”

Childhood shame carries into adulthood

Jane Middleton-Moz, Ph.D., has written extensively on the topic of shame. In her book, “Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise,” she provides a laundry list of the deleterious effects of shame in adults. The more insidious ones are

  • fear of intimacy and commitment
  • unusually defensive and unable to handle criticism
  • an irrational need to apologize and assume guilt, even when they are not at fault
  • a pervasive sense of loneliness
  • problems forming lasting friendships

Stop the shame being visited upon the children

It is easy to break the cycle of shaming. All it requires is implementing some new parenting techniques. The blog offers the following  ways to parent without shaming.

1. Model the behavior you want. Kids look to parents for guidance to know what’s socially acceptable. They learn by watching.

2. Guide with empathic limits. Don’t scold. Instruct. Don’t tell a child he’s naughty for touching a hot stove. Explain why it is dangerous and what can happen.

3. Resist the urge to judge. Unfortunately, most of the ways parents guide children takes shame to toxic levels. That includes any negative judgment about:

  • Who the child is: “You’d lose your head if it wasn’t glued on!”
  • What the child wants: “You just want more, more more! You have a whole room full of toys, isn’t that enough for you?”
  • What the child needs: “Are you a baby, or what?”

4. Resist the urge to be punitive. Modern parenting encourages consequences — both natural and those articulated by the parents — for actions which are school, social, or moral offenses. Punishment, by definition, is an imposition of a penalty as retribution. Punishment is effective only to the degree that the child experiences it as painful, whereas consequences teach natural cause and effect.

White River Academy is a formidable residential boarding school tucked into the brim of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. Teens attending White River are taught to love and value themselves. Boys learn self-reliance through continuous autonomous project management and community servant leadership. Our curriculum  and outdoor activities strengthen the mind and body.

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