Childhood Shame: How It Shapes Our World

We can all remember events in our childhood where we felt shame and those memories linger. You can see children being shamed every day on the streets of any town or city. I recently saw a young child shouted at by her father for moving away from their table in a cafe, a table where both he and his wife were avidly scrolling on social media. Two weeks ago, I saw a young child dragged out of a shop violently by his arm, screaming in terror as his mother verbally and physically punished him. I am often surprised by the reaction of clients when I say to them that the shame they are carrying is not their shame.

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What did these children learn from this experience? Some might say that these parents were teaching their children right and wrong or the difference between good and bad behavior and this was the method they know, bad as it is. However, by implementing shame- based parenting, we are teaching our children little about behavior and more about the fact that they are inherently “bad”.

Shame is often used in parenting to curtail a child’s behavior through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves rather than their behavior. It is either direct, indirect or implied. The impact of shame is that a child feels “bad” or “wrong” for feeling, needing or wanting something that might be normal at any given age. Shame is consolidated in punitive punishment and the language parents use towards their children. Sometimes it can just be a look or a feeling that a child has disappointed their parent that sets off the feeling of shame. Imagine how a child feels about the following statements:

“ You selfish brat!” “If it wasn’t for you…” “Act your age”, “ Stop being a baby!” “Bad girl” “Why can’t you be like….?.”

Shame based parenting is extremely common and doesn’t only exist in abusive families and while legislation has been brought in to counter physical harming of children ( something that was seen as normal a generation ago), we are only just becoming aware of the effects of shaming and emotional abuse on children and how shaming is often projected across generations. We are only just learning that shaming a child into conforming to rules of behavior which are not developmentally appropriate can have a major effect on the subsequent adult.

Studies show that we mostly acquire shame at around the age of two where language and motor skills are developing. This is also the time that that cute baby turns into a challenging toddler pushing boundaries. Many parents are overwhelmed and lack the knowledge of what to do to help their child. In this case, they are likely to revert to how they were parented. This is the equation that keeps shame alive. Where there is shame, there is also a shamer who was shamed themselves. A lot of parents do not understand that this is a natural phase in a child’s development and the child themselves is likely overwhelmed. What a child needs is to be helped to emotionally regulate, taught to self soothe, to connect to their parent and to be treated with care. Instead they are told they are wrong or bad for behaving in that way. Children will naturally suppress parts of themselves that they might believe displease their parents and the parent goes happily along thinking that the shaming has worked effectively because the child has stopped the behavior.

Children will always put their parents on a pedestal, whether they deserve it or not and shaming messages from parents are very powerful and difficult to erase. Often these messages, subtle or otherwise are repeated when the child gets older “ I am stupid” or “ I am a bad person” are often heard when things don’t go well. Shame has a devastating effect on the development of a child because it feels its needs and wants are unimportant. This produces an adult that lacks self-esteem, lacking in meeting own needs, feeling guilty for having needs and easily triggered in relationships, often leading to withdrawal or codependency. Shame curtails the genuine person who feels judged and feels the need to conform to the needs and wishes of other people. Many studies see shame as the most powerful emotion there is, having the ability to suppress all other emotions.

The unfortunate aspect of this is that adults in therapy are dealing above everything else, with the effects of how they were shamed into conforming to arbitrary rules set by parents. To stop this, we need a whole new approach to parenting where the emotional needs of the child are placed foremost in a parenting style that sees that shaming does not teach responsibility or empathy. We need much more understanding of how a child develops, what is age appropriate behavior and how to deal effectively with a child without shaming it into submission. We also need to stop labeling our children as “spoiled” or “difficult” and watch the language we use around them.

In therapy, shame is the most common deep emotion felt by clients, even if they are not fully aware of it. They often paint their childhood as ok or happy and say that their parents loved them. This might be the first sign ( which they prove later) that even talking about aspects of their childhood is triggering deep-seated shame in them. They often fail to acknowledge any sort of achievement and take on a lot of responsibility for others’ emotions. They see the world through a judgmental, I’m not good enough lens and their needs are either non existent or suppressed.

The opposite of shame is pride in a positive sense, a key aspect of recovery from shame. That is to learn to acknowledge what has been achieved and how. To be able to overcome shame- based conditioning and to ensure that it doesn’t skip to the next generation, cognitive restructuring of the template brought into adulthood is needed. Once it is acknowledged, a process of reframing, realistic thinking, substituting self- defeating, self blaming thoughts with nurturing thinking patterns can take place. This is no easy task as shame is the hardest of all schemas to shift but we eventually have to stop carrying the shame given to us by our parents.

2 Thoughts

  1. I so appreciate this post. The unbinding of shame appears at the core of most clinical (relational) issues. I appreciate your posts and insights “Where there is shame, there is also a shamer who was shamed themselves”. reaches the genuine truth and layered need.

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