There is no exact, step-by-step way of creating emotional safety in the home. We all are in a process of learning and discovery. With this realization, we grow as parents alongside our children as they grow in their development.
So what are we to guard against? Shame is among the most painful strong emotions humans can feel. Unlike guilt, which arises out of empathy, shame is borne about of a feeling of unworthiness or worthlessness.
Caring for our children when they feel distressed is vital. This may happen when our child is afraid, hurt, or angry for a variety of reasons including when we feel angry toward him or her. There are ways to guide our children toward developing our family values of trust, empathy, and affection.
Editor’s note: This week, we offer you a 5-part series — originating in The Attached Family online magazine’s “Parenting Without Shame” issue — to help you better understand the development of toxic shame. Part 1 explained how trauma includes 3 components: Fear, Disconnection, and Shame. Part 2 explored Fear. Part 3 defined Disconnection. In this Part 4, we take a look at what it means to become shame-based.
Shame is a visceral and pervasive feeling of being fundamentally flawed and inadequate as a human being.
Shame is primarily relational: Although shame leaves us feeling absolutely alone, its roots lie in an implicit conviction that we are somehow unworthy of having meaningful relationships with other people.
Shame vs Guilt
Shame is often confused with guilt, but with guilt, we feel bad about things we have done. With shame, we feel bad about who we are.
Guilt is about our actions. Shame is about our being.
Shame is mediated by the emotional networks of the brain, so although shame is typically accompanied by self-critical thoughts like “I am stupid/useless/fat/pathetic,” it is ultimately lived as an embodied experience that resides deep beneath our awareness and sucks us into the psychological equivalent of a black hole.
When Shame Becomes Toxic
Shame is a product of evolution, and it is experienced as a passing emotion in almost everybody. It exists to tell us that we are at risk of losing important social relationships, or that we might be thrown out of our group.
However, if we’ve been traumatized, then shame becomes indelibly interwoven with our implicit sense of who we are, whereupon our identity becomes “shame-based.”
There are several routes to becoming shame-based:
Shame can originate outside of us — When we are made to feel inadequate by our family, caregivers, teachers, peers, culture, or socio-political environment, we absorb that shame and make it our own. In this case, being shamed constitutes the original painful and frightening experience around which our trauma-world is built.
Human infants need sensitive and responsive nurturing from caregivers — When this need is not met, children develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of being inadequate. They also develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of inadequacy around their actual need for nurturing — implicitly feeling that there must be something wrong with them for having the needs.
Shame can originate inside us as a response to more overt traumatizing experiences — Painful and frightening experiences occur that have nothing to do with being shamed. However, we have evolved a need to understand why these things have happened to us, and for various reasons, we tend to believe that we are at fault. For example, children whose parents divorce commonly feel that if they had been “better,” their parents would have stayed together.
Once we’ve entered a trauma-world, shame can be created in response to our own behavior — There are times when we know we are over-reacting. However, because we aren’t aware that our fear system is hyper-sensitive, we take our behavior as evidence of our own supposed inadequacy. In addition, when we bury parts of ourselves in order to make ourselves acceptable to others, we implicitly sense that we are being inauthentic, which in turn creates shame.
Irrespective of how our shame originates, once we’ve become shame-based, we can’t recognize shame for what it is. Thus, we see ourselves through a distorted lens. As a result, we are likely to experience ourselves as contemptible and feel a victim to our own believed inadequacy.
What Doesn’t Work to Heal Shame
In this state, we get sucked into a downward spiral of shame. We can become even more desperate to obliterate the parts of ourselves that we believe make us inadequate, redoubling our efforts to shame those parts into submission. However, when we use shame against ourselves, we retraumatize ourselves. Then, instead of fostering change, we reinforce the status quo and fortify the walls of our trauma-world.
At the same time, we try to cajole ourselves into success, believing that if we can force ourselves to become more than we are — or ideally perfect — then the gnawing pain of being shame-based will abate. However, if we are shame-based, then no amount of success will be enough. No matter what we do, we are never enough.
Being shame-based doesn’t only poison our relationship with ourselves, it also poisons our relationships with others. When we are shame-based, we will be terrified that if others get to know us, they will see us as the inadequate person we believe ourselves to be. In an unconscious attempt to prevent that from happening, we may put up barriers, push people away, and sabotage relationships. Alternatively, we may try to control others, hoping that we can prevent them from doing anything that might bring our shame to the surface.
We are generally not conscious of what we are doing, or indeed why we are doing it. However, we are left with a murky feeling that our relationships lack authenticity, trust, and intimacy. As a result, we feel increasingly isolated.
Also, because human beings are such a profoundly social species, when we don’t have meaningful relationships, we feel sub-human, and that, in turn, exacerbates our shame.
In short, shame creates more shame. Shame also generates isolation and fear. And shame reinforces the need to disconnect. Ultimately, shame keeps us locked in our trauma-worlds.
Tomorrow, in Part 4, we’ll explore what does work in healing shame
Editor’s note: This week, we offer you a 5-part series — originating in The Attached Family online magazine’s “Parenting Without Shame” issue — to help you better understand the development of toxic shame. Part 1 explained how trauma includes 3 components: Fear, Disconnection, and Shame. In this Part 2, we take a look at Fear.
In response to experiencing overwhelming pain or fear, biological changes occur that leave our minds and bodies extremely sensitive to potential danger.
There are many harmful consequences to having a sensitized fear system. However, if we live in a dangerous environment, suffering these consequences is the lesser of evils, because without being alert to danger, we are likely to die young. In fact, the ability of minds and bodies to become more fearful in dangerous environments is the product of evolution, and exists in many different animal species.
We are particularly alert to danger around the original traumatizing experiences. At the center of a trauma-world is the imperative to avoid retraumatization. Often, this imperative is held unconsciously, so we don’t know that it is driving us. All the same, it impacts our lives in ways that can cause as much — if not more — pain than the original wounding.
Trauma-reactions Intend to Protect, But Actually Hurt
Sometimes, it is impossible to avoid situations that appear similar to the one that traumatized us. When this happens, our old trauma comes back to life — not as a memory of the past, but as a fear-driven, knee-jerk reaction. I’ve called these “trauma-reactions.”
Trauma-reactions are generally built around the mammalian responses to danger: freeze, flight, fight, and submission — though, in each of us, they will take a unique form.
Trauma-reactions seem to come out of nowhere. That is because of the way that traumatizing events are recorded in our memories. Normally, when we commit an event to memory, a tag is added to the event recording when and where it occurred. When these memories are activated, the tags inform us that the experience happened at a particular moment in our past.
In contrast, overwhelming painful and frightening experiences are committed to memory without being tagged with a time and place. Consequently, when these memories are activated, we aren’t aware that we are remembering the past. Instead, we relive the visceral feelings and reactions of earlier experiences as if they were present reality. This kind of memory is called “implicit” or “procedural” memory.
It is easier to get a sense of implicit memory if we think about riding a bicycle: When we get on a bicycle, we don’t consciously remember learning to contract this muscle, or to lean in that direction; rather, what we learned during childhood is implicitly written into our nervous system and muscles, and that memory comes alive as a set of lived reactions.
The advantage of implicit memory is that it enables us to react almost instantaneously, and it is easy to see how that is valuable with a skill like bicycle-riding. Similarly, growing up in a dangerous environment, the ability to react virtually instantaneously can save our lives.
However, with trauma-reactions this instantaneous response can also be problematic, because the implicit memory will sometimes be activated when there is no danger. Worse, because we will be unaware that our traumatic memories have come back to life, we’ll be convinced that what we are feeling is happening right now. As a result, we are likely to behave in ways that recreate the very situation we are trying to avoid.
Protect Against Fear
When thinking about childhood trauma, we need to be aware that throughout our evolutionary history, danger hasn’t only come from predators and illness — it has also come from parents.
In fact, anthropologists now know that for our ancestors, the greatest danger faced by infants was being abandoned to die by a mother who didn’t have the resources to care for another child. It could be that the mother already had a nursing child, or she might be lacking in social support, or there could be a famine.
Either way, for ancestral human infants, an inattentive mother would have been implicitly terrifying, because it would have indicated that the infant’s life was at risk.
Tomorrow, in Part 3, we’ll explore the second component of trauma: Disconnection
The holidays are an exciting time for children. The gifts, the lights, the decorations, the food, the family gathering — the list goes on and on. But in the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to lose sight of the values we want to pass down to our children, such as strengthening and maintaining a strong parent-child attachment.
Here are 10 tips to nurture attachment with our children during the holidays:
You are the best gift — “Living in a split-attention society, many children have rarely experienced the full, uninterrupted attention of a parent.”Stacy inspires us to give our children what they really want: Our time.
Emphasize family time — “The best present we are getting each other this year is time together.”Scylla encourages all of us to intentionally spend time together as a family in our annual holiday traditions.
Santa or not, don’t use gifts as a bribe — “Our family does Santa, but we don’t use him as a discipline tactic. The kids have no idea of the notion that they ‘must be good’ so Santa will come.”Sarah suggests that we keep the spirit of the holidays without any of the shame.
Inspire the spirit of giving — “For the first time ever, the school-aged children beamed with pride over the effort put into their gifts and the expectant joy when the receiver opened them. The emphasis was now on the making and giving rather than the receiving.”Judy offers a list of gifts that children of all ages can make and reclaim the spirit of the holidays.
Rethink holiday treats — “Many of my holiday memories revolve around food. Now that we are starting our own family traditions, I am trying to incorporate the fun and pleasure of holiday goodies without the overload of sugar. As a parent, it is my responsibility to nurture a taste for nutritious foods.”Dionna inspires us with tips to make holiday treats that are both special and healthier.
Strive for balance — “Especially going into the holidays, I find that it’s easy to lose days to errands, decorating, and purchasing presents. I get to the end of the day and feel like it was lost.” API Leader Sonya Feher reminds us to take some down time for ourselves.
If you’re breastfeeding, take advantage — “The holidays can be overwhelming to little ones, so time spent breastfeeding can be like a retreat. It’s a quick and easy way to reconnect and helps restore calm and reduce overstimulation. When I’m nursing, I also get the chance to sit down, put my feet up, and let some other folks do the work for a bit.”Amber encourages breastfeeding mothers to make the most of breastfeeding, both for their children and themselves, during the overstimulating holidays.
Model discipline — “Christmas can be a tricky season as far as discipline goes. There are presents stacked under the tree. There are cookies and sweets everywhere. There is constantly family, noise, and activity. It is very hard to stay disciplined ourselves, and it is the same for our children.”Jasmine reminds us to teach our children through example of how to navigate boundaries during the holidays.
Plan on growth — “I resolve to practice positive discipline, not to spank or use rewards or punishments to coerce behavior.” Never big on making New Year resolutions, Christina explains why she had a change of heart.
Working on the “Parenting Without Shame” issue of Attached Family was unlike any that have come before. I didn’t realize, when I began, of how little I knew about shame as a topic.
“Shame” is a term used often in parenting and parent education circles, but do we really know what shame is?
So much of putting this issue together came down to doing the research — and soul-searching — to really understand the differences between shame and guilt, and shame as a normal emotion and when it crossed into unhealthy territory, the effects of that toxic shame, and then the sheer enormity of effort — and courage — that must take place for a person to heal from a shame-based self-image.
Healing from toxic shame is no small feat. It serves as a cautionary tale that we parents must take care to be intentional about promoting secure attachment in our relationships with our children and in guarding our children’s hearts while we guide them through how we discipline.
But at the same time, it’s important to not inadvertently turn that shame onto ourselves for not being perfect parents. No one is perfect, and fortunately, there are healthy ways around those imperfections to help our children process their normal feelings of shame when they happen.
So, it’s not so much how to parent without shame, but rather how to parent our children — and ourselves — to best process the normal emotions of shame that will arise in their lives, just as we teach them to do when they are angry or disappointed. I hope you enjoy this in-depth study into this important topic.
“Parenting without shame” is a hot topic on search engines. Google pulled up more than 5 pages for me of links with this search term. It seems that many parents are looking for ways to raise their children without shame.
But is this possible?
Shame is among the myriad normal emotions felt by humans in certain social situations. It is borne of a feeling that one has violated the standards of their social group. With this in mind, it would be nearly impossible to eliminate shame from a child’s emotional repertoire.
No, I don’t think it’s shame in and of itself that we parents fear. We understand that, as an emotion, shame is an uncomfortable feeling. But denying the feeling of shame completely is like denying anger as an emotion. It’s neither practical nor healthy.
Actually, what we parents fear is inadvertently raising our children with an identity shaped by shame. And this is a valid concern. Past generations used shame pervasively as a discipline technique, and many of us can identify parts of ourselves still tied to a shame-based self-image years and decades later. We do not want our children to grow up in a family environment where shame is promoted.
But we must still value discipline. Our children thrive with warmth, sensitive responsiveness, empathy, trust, nurturing, and boundaries. Boundaries on behavior guide children toward the family values we hope to pass down. Boundaries are healthy. They keep the child’s developing mind knowing the parameters of what is safe in the world and what is not, what is expected by his social group or not, how she can gain a feeling of contentment or not. Children need the structure provided by boundaries.
So, therein lies the question: How do we teach our children boundaries in their behavior without instilling a shame-based self-image? The seventh of Attachment Parenting International‘s Eight Principles of Parenting — Provide Positive Discipline — is how. Being consistent and firm, yet not harsh or punishment-based, positive discipline creates an environment that specifies the boundaries of behaviors for a developing child without relying on physically hurtful or emotionally manipulative tactics to control and coerce children. The goal of positive discipline is instead to teach and guide. And it works.
This latest issue of Attached Family, “Parenting Without Shame,” explores and examines shame at its core — what is it, how does it differ from guilt, when does it cross the line from a normal to unhealthy emotion, the effects of toxic stress, and the great difficulty it is to heal a shame-based self-image. It’s an in-depth look at a rather scary emotion, but it gets to the heart of an often-misunderstood topic, and it affirms how positive discipline and Attachment Parenting is protective of our children’s self-worth in a shame-based world.
There is a new “discipline” fad going around: Your kid does something “bad” — you post it on the Internet. You put a sign around their neck that defines their “crime” for all the world to see. After all, when they win trophies, we do the same, don’t we?
The Internet has taken on the form of the public shaming square. The belief is that communal shaming is far more powerful than shaming on a one-on-one basis.
The tragedy here is that responses have been “high-fives” applauding the parents for being brave to put their children’s limitations out there.
This doesn’t surprise me, given that millions just don’t know what to do when their kids’ behavior goes awry. Desperate, many are willing to try just about anything, which accounts for the popularity of many of these latest “discipline” fads.
Parents truly believe that this sort of public shaming will leave a long-lasting impact on their children, ensuring that they will never engage in negative behaviors again. Little do they realize that these reactions do little to create the introspection necessary to limit negative behaviors and all to do with creating shame, which is the true driver behind them.
When we enforce discipline on our children, we are punishing them. We may not like to admit this, but these actions in the name of “discipline” are highly punitive — not just obvious ones but also our passive-aggressive ones.
Any “discipline” that is enforced by an action that the parent does to the child is punitive on some level. It is the opposite of allowing consequences to teach our children. And our children know there is something desperately askew in this method.
Children resent being punished, on a public level or on a subtle level — resent us for punishing them. To punish only develops shame, which transforms into hostility, while further into the teens can lead to serious acting-out. In contrast, allowing natural consequences to teach a child develops self-discipline, which is what we want in our children.
Enforced discipline does the exact opposite of developing self-discipline in our children. Punishment undercuts the teaching power of natural consequences.
Oh, it’s certainly true that you can bully kids into good behavior. And not just kids. Husbands and wives, bosses at work and some of higher rank in the armed forces have long bullied to get the results they want.
The fact is, bullying works — for a time. Then it boomerangs.
When we bully someone into conforming, we might well destroy what may be the last shreds of self-worth the individual has. Because it’s only from a low sense of their worth that any child engages in bullying another child — just as this is the only reason a parent bullies their own child, a spouse bullies their spouse or a superior bullies someone of lower rank in the forces…a topic we’re increasingly hearing about in the media.
While people can be bullied into behaving a certain way for a time, human beings only live a lifetime as good people doing good things for others when they feel good themselves. Feeling good begets doing good.
It’s long been believed that humans are fundamentally flawed and that they need to be forced into doing good. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We come into the world as wonderful individuals whose greatest joy comes from bringing joy to others.
Think about a time when you felt really great. Perhaps you just fell in love, or got a new job you really wanted, or got a promotion. Doesn’t the grass look greener, the sky bluer? Doesn’t it make you want to share your happiness with the world?
Sadly, through home life, school and society in general, we soon learn not to feel too good about ourselves. The less we feel great, the more we exhibit behavior toward others that’s not all that great.
So how do you bring about a change of heart?
We change the focus.
The focus till now has always been on the child. People want to know how to get their children to “behave differently.” This is where I believe we miss the point.
In my own life, I put the focus on myself. As a clinical psychologist who sees many parents and their children, whenever my daughter exhibits less than desirable behavior, I ask what this is saying about me as a parent.
Children are a mirror of our own unresolved issues. So if a child bullies, that child’s needs are in some way going unmet. No child who feels delightful within themselves — whose emotional needs are being met because they feel truly “heard” by the parent — bullies like this.
The bullying is the child’s scream for help, not for punishment, and certainly not for shaming.
Once you realize that a low sense of self-worth — stemming from not truly feeling valued by and connected to the parent — is at the root of the bullying, to lower how good the child feels about herself even more by shaming her could boomerang in a terrible way. How would the parent feel if the child no longer felt their life was worth living?
What we need to address as parents are:
Where am I, as the parent, failing to connect with my child?
What in the child longs to be recognized but is being ignored?
How can I help mitigate the feelings of inferiority and shame that my child experiences?
And most importantly, how am I projecting my own internal shame onto my child?
Unless we begin to turn the spotlight within and ask these difficult but essential questions, our children will live in the legacy of shame which will continue into future generations. And the epidemic of bullying will continue to soar.
I recently came across a social media post that opened with the following phrase: “Have to laugh at people who are against spanking.” The post stated that spanking leads to a child learning respect and boundaries with the absence of any trust issues and hatred toward the parent, and so on and so forth. It concluded with: “Repost if you got your butt smacked and survived.” I couldn’t disagree more. My feelings were a mixture of appall, irritation and sadness. And no, I didn’t feel like laughing at anyone!
In the role of parents, we are our children’s first and most important role models. We are our children’s leaders, their advocates. When leaders say one thing but do another, they do erode trust — an essential element of productive leadership. I believe that the most effective teaching by a parent is accomplished by setting a positive example for the child to witness and learn from.
Actions are more powerful than words, and our kids observe us conduct ourselves in this world. Whether we offer help to an elder crossing the street, are courteous to the cashier at the supermarket or show respect to our own parents — whether we shout profanities at our fellow drivers, mistreat those who work for us, or bad-mouth our family and friends — each of our actions signal to our kids what is appropriate and acceptable behavior.
When we spank our child as a consequence of unwanted behavior, what are we communicating to that child? What are the messages that child may be sensing? We teach him — by our own example, through our actions — that it’s acceptable to manage anger and discontent with violence. Furthermore, we may be encouraging a cycle of violence as we are providing him with improper tools to handle his anger and other intense emotions.
There are many adults who were physically punished as children and are supportive of physically punishing their children, reasoning that they “survived.” The above-mentioned post has more than 24,000 likes, and that number keeps growing. To them I say:
Good for you that you survived!
Most of us don’t want to simply “survive” in this life. We want to thrive!
Children can be damaged in many ways and spend much of their adult life untying the knots their parents had created for them — unleashing themselves from all the pain and humiliation inflicted upon them at an innocent, young age.
I have to keep in mind that many people lack personal introspection and insight.
It isn’t easy being a parent. It is blissful and rewarding, but it is also challenging and exhausting. Once my second child became a toddler, I thought I crossed my biggest parenting hurdle: 5 years of sleepless nights and the suffocating dependency. I’m now realizing, I crossed a moderate hurdle, only to face the biggest one — thus far — namely, disciplining! With one of my kids being strong-minded and defiant, I have experienced fury and other emotions I wasn’t aware existed in me. I am flawed; I crossed the line I set twice — not my proudest moments by any stretch of the imagination. I have ample sympathy for parents who struggle with discipline — every single day!
There is overwhelming evidence that physical punishment is both ineffective and harmful to child development. Instilling fear in children serves no purpose and creates feelings of shame and humiliation. Fear has been shown to lead to an increased risk of future antisocial behavior, including crime and substance abuse. Studies show that spanking and other physical punishment techniques can create ongoing behavioral and emotional problems. Harsh, physical punishment teaches children that violence is the only way to solve problems. Furthermore, controlling or manipulative discipline compromises the trust between parent and child, and harms the attachment bond. You can read more on about Attachment Parenting International‘s Seventh Principle of Parenting: Practice Positive Discipline.
In any event, I don’t need experts or studies to tell me that inflicting physical pain on my kids is wrong, on so many levels — I view it as common sense. The key principle I impart on my kids is: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself.” It’s fundamentally the way I would like my kids to carry themselves in our home as well as in the world. Hence, I don’t hit my kids — spanking is just a label for a form of hitting — as I don’t enjoy being hit myself.
Needless to say, the parent is the authority figure in the family, but that still doesn’t justify acts of aggression.
We don’t exist in a Utopian world and there are the occasions when — sadly — aggression and violence are necessary in society, but this is another conversation. But aggression and violence does not have a place in the home: the one place children ought to feel secure, loved and protected — not shamed, not humiliated.
The goal of discipline — the word’s Latin root meaning “to teach” — is to change behavior. It’s a sign of strength to examine ourselves and our parenting approaches, striving to improve and evolve. So, let’s lead our kids and teach them to adjust their behavior with a gentle approach and maybe, just maybe, we the parents need a dose of discipline, too.