Saturday, 23 June 2012

Shaming children is shameful isn't it?

What purpose does making a child feel ashamed of something they have done serve?
I suspect that the hope is that whilst in that state of shame they will self-reflect and re-examine their misdemeanour and will not do it again and will contritely apologise to all concerned.  It may be also that there is some 'pay off' for the 'shamer' who feels justified in seeing the child brought back 'into line' and looking as if they regret what they did, It can feel kind of powerful to bring out such a reaction in another human being.

Shame is that mind-numbing sensation of utter misery and embarrassment which gnaws at the pit of the stomach and can obliterate any other thoughts or feelings and reduce us to head hanging, shuffling, mumbling, self punishing, long after the incident, shells of ourselves.  Useful life lesson?

Don't be fooled either by the child who shows no shame for something they have been pulled up on, they may have had to learn a different way to behave as showing their shame could be dangerous for them, or they just may plain not understand what they have done and why it is shameful to another.
There has even been research now which shows that dogs feel shame! Anyone who has witnessed them slinking away head and tail down would confirm this!

The ability to feel shame can be a huge, weighty burden we drag with us through life, it can cause us to drink heavily, take drugs, live a risk-taking dangerous life, self harm, starve ourselves, over eat and get into abusive relationships as we don't deserve any better as we are so shameful and these all serve as distractions from those feelings. Once used to feeling shame, it is easy to fall into that trap about everything, to analyse every conversation or interaction and to be self-critical and then feel ashamed for saying or doing the wrong thing.  Not a healthy way to live though and a great 'stealer' of your time and enjoyment of life, so why would you give that to your child?

So, how we do make our children feel shame, aren't we just bringing them up properly so they know right from wrong?  When we, tell a child off  they feel shame, when we point out something they have not done to our standards, they feel shame, when we send them to the naughty step, time out zone, calm down cushion, they feel shame, when we tell others what they have done, they feel shame, when we share something they have confided in us as a 'story' to our friends, they feel shame, as soon as we catch them doing something they know they should not be doing they feel shame!  Even if they don't show you their shame, as life may have taught them not too, or they continue with the unwanted behaviour, or completely lose it, they are still feeling ashamed.

For some children, once they feel they have got it wrong and are feeling ashamed then 'all bets will be off'.  They are a terrible, scum of the earth human being, they tell themselves so they may as well give into and act out all of the pain this is causing in them as it is too much to keep inside and they could not feel much worse anyway.  This is often the way of children who have lived through abuse of any kind, or they internalised their shame, often coming out as self harm at some point.

So, what is the alternative and why consider it?  Surely feeling shame is part of growing up?
Why does it have to be as it is such a useless, crippling feeling to tap into and does not inspire and motivate anyone for long and can make you ill and vulnerable.  If a child, or of course young person, does something which is not alright then this is an opportunity to look at it with them in a non-blaming, shaming way.  They may have acted on impulse, not thought things through, forgotten, not known it wasn't acceptable behaviour, been in a rush, having a bad day, made a mistake, the list goes on and is all part of their 'Job Description'.

How would you talk to your friend if they wrote on the bathroom wall?  Would you start of by yelling at them?  What would you say to your friend if they forgot something?  Would you deliver a long lecture on how forgetful they are and how you always have to remember everything etc.  What would you say to a friend who had not been able to wait for a turn with something and snatched it?  My message is a simple one, ditch the whole idea of teaching children by making them feel ashamed and sorry for what they have done because when they are in the 'zone of shame' their brain will not be focusing on how to become a model child for the rest of the day but on how bad they are and feel now.

Of course children have to learn about life and how to interact and behave but this can be done with kindness and patience, not shame.


  1. This is really interesting as a couple of weeks ago I was at a seminar delivered by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick the 'fathers' of Motivational Interviewing and they talked about how the addictions field historically has used shame to change people's substance use. Miller said that there is no psychological theory or evidence to support the idea that shame is a catalyst for behavioural change. Motivational Interviewing is very much about coming alongside and empathising with the person and helping them weigh up the costs and benefits of the decisions they make, rather than dictating, lecturing, shaming etc. Sounds like a lot of agreement with your analysis here Jane. Great post.

  2. Thanks Collette,that's good to hear as I know there is so much overlap between trauma in childhood and substance mis-use and dependency. My parenting is all about coming alongside of children rather than controlling from above or going head to head!