Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Since I became a parent, my sensitivity to how parents communicate with their children has grown even more. I used to react with anger and willingness to intervene to the critical comments of my parents towards their children, today I look with empathy at both sides of this relationship. Both for children for whom verbal and emotional violence can be very harmful, but also for parents who, in all this helplessness and frustration, are unable to communicate with the child in any other way.

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Being an imperfect parent is fine!

Nothing in this writing is intended to judge you as a parent or point out your mistakes. I am convinced that even the most conscious and empathetic parents sometimes criticize and make their children feel ashamed. My guess is that when I feel helpless in the future towards my daughter's behavior, I will also make such a mistake from time to time.

"The truth is, we do to our children what we did when we were children".

And because most of us have experienced various forms of emotional manipulation during our childhood, we often do the same to our children - even when our intentions are only good and out of love for our child. In the past, treating children in this way was an accepted form of parenting, and it is still firmly established in our culture. For many parents, these are strongly imprinted habits - something they grew up in on their own for several or even several dozen years!

So I am writing this article so that we can take a look at our own ways of communicating with children when their behavior causes us discomfort without self-criticism or guilt. Thanks to this, we will be able to become better as parents by choosing other, healthier communication tools.

Shame is the easiest way to control your child's behavior

I remember it today - this comment hit me as if I had heard it myself from my mother.

On a sunny day, I opened my window wide and for a moment watched what was happening on "my" street. I immediately saw the baby walking with his mother's hand and crying loudly. I figured it had just hit the ground. When they reached my window, his mother looked at him disapprovingly and said:

"I will tell the doctor that Tomek has a problem with his ears because he cannot hear what I am saying to him."

Pretty soon, I had a mixture of anger directed at the mother of this child with sympathy for the addressee of this comment. The power of these words and the emotional load carried by the intonation of this statement really touched me. So much so that I started to wonder - what needs does a mother satisfy who says yes to her child? How do such comments affect the psyche of young children?

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

I try to answer these questions in this article because although for some it may sound like a harmless, harsh comment, the work of psychologists and psychotherapists around the world clearly shows how a feeling of shame can negatively affect the development of a child's personality.

The more so because most often this type of comment is not an isolated case. Imagine that your child listens to comments such as:

  • Don't act like a little child!
  • You're already too big for that
  • Good girls don't talk that way
  • Don't be so selfish, share your toys with your little brother
  • You are just like your father
  • You will be fine!
  • I will never teach you this!
  • Have you messed up again?
  • You're spoiled
  • The other kids don't act like you

Some parents resort to more extreme ways to embarrass their children. With them, the above-mentioned comments look very innocent. A few years ago, there was a fashion in the United States of America to post photos of their children admitting they made a mistake on social media or videos in which they are embarrassed by their parents in all sorts of ways. Here is an example:

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

"Since I want to share photos of alcohol on the internet, I'm absolutely not ready for social media and will take a break until I learn what to share and what not to share."

If these emotional "hits" hit a child's heart over many weeks, months, or even years of childhood, think how many beats it will take.

Before we look at what such remarks can actually do to a little person's self-esteem, let's try to understand the parents who formulate them. Why do they use such messages so often?

The answer is simple - because they are effective. Very effective! They quickly make the child feel worse about himself. By wanting to get away from this feeling (and wanting to feel loved and accepted again), he becomes obedient and "polite". This is one of the easiest ways to gain control over your child's behavior.

The feeling of shame caused by such practices is one of the most uncomfortable emotions a person can experience. Shame is synonymous with beliefs such as "There is something wrong with me", "I don't deserve love." Such thoughts are terrifying for a child. He will do everything in his power to obtain acceptance and love from his parent, because failure to do so - from his point of view - may even endanger his life (being excluded from his herd for our ancestors often meant death).

Therefore, in order to avoid the unbearable burden of shame, children immediately submit to their parent's will.

"It is a sad situation for me when a child says" yes "mainly out of fear of punishment, consequences, or rejection, although he feels opposition in his heart. But even sadder is that such a process of scaring, shaming and hurting is based on a large part of the upbringing, relationships with children and our culture in general. " - AGNIESZKA STEIN

It is understandable that an unaware parent will use this method of control as often as possible. Caring for young children is a huge challenge and frustration and a feeling of helplessness is daily bread for most parents.

Just like an embarrassed child, a tired parent wants to free himself from uncomfortable emotions as soon as possible. Not having the ability to deal with them and knowing healthier and more empathetic ways to communicate with the child, he or she will reach for what is known and effective.

"When a person feels helpless and wants, above all, to reduce the tension resulting from helplessness, then often his gaze is narrowed to a conflict with a child and the question of how to obtain obedience.


Parents are often unaware that these emotions arise in them. Oftentimes, such uncomfortable feelings are related to their own unworked past experiences. Having such unhealed wounds only increases the intensity of feelings of helplessness or frustration towards the child's antics, thus reinforcing the need to reach for the simplest available solution.

Parent, if you are embarrassing your child with all sorts of critical comments, I want you to hear, I can understand why it is. I know that the feeling of frustration and helplessness is unbearable and you see no other way to tame your child. I know other methods often don't work. It's perfectly okay to make mistakes - as parents, we all make mistakes! I am a freshly baked dad, but I already experience it when my daughter continues to cry loudly, although it seems to me that all her needs are met.

The fact that you are reading this article is admirable because it means that you have a curiosity and openness to the contrary. You want to understand the mechanisms behind your own reactions and you want to know how your communication can affect the psyche of your children. On behalf of your children - thank you!

The influence of shame on the child's psyche

The survival of a small child depends 100% on your care for him. This changes over time, but for a long time, you will be a person who knows everything about the world for a long time. Children see their parents as the greatest authorities because it is from them that they learn what life is and how it works. Therefore, every word you say is like an unquestionable truth to them.

As an adult, you understand that what you say may not be true. He can protect himself internally from wounds inflicted by words of humiliation. He can distance himself from the judgmental words and explain to himself why you said it.

Children do not have this understanding and take your criticisms deeply to themselves. If they experience such remarks for a certain period of time, systematically - it acts as a drop that pierces the rock, creating deep emotional wounds in the form of feelings of shame. This soul-eating emotion (as Carl Jung once bluntly put it) infects the child's sense of identity, causing the child to equate the thought "something is wrong with me" with the truth about himself.

Although it is a "gift" received from a parent, the child will quickly begin to regard it as an integral part of his nature.

The feeling of shame along with negative beliefs about ourselves take root in our personality and often stays with us for the rest of our lives. Many a time I worked in my office with people who, when coming with various problems, to do some internal work, reached memories in which they were embarrassed and criticized by their parents or peers.

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Shame is a source of deep internal conflict between the part of our self that feels broken and deprived of self-esteem, and the parts that deny it and do not want other people to know about it.

Give yourself a moment to reflect - is there something about you that you don't like about yourself and that you don't want to reveal to other people?

It used to be that way for me with shyness. Part of me was shy and another part wanted to show outward that I was confident. I was experiencing an internal conflict that was rooted in a feeling of shame. I was afraid that others would see that I didn't really represent anything interesting with myself. So the embarrassed part of me brought to life the shy part (which by withdrawing from social interactions helped me hide my shame), and the activity of the shy part brought to life the part that wanted to show me as a self-confident person.

This is just one of the hundreds of examples of how feelings of shame can shape our personality in our teenage and adult lives.

"Polite children

Those parts of us that protect us from shame will do whatever it takes to never experience it again and to prevent anyone from ever knowing that there is something ugly, bad, and broken inside us.

Thus, the child's psyche develops a whole set of mechanisms that fulfill this role - being a "polite" child (I mean "politeness", which is tantamount to being mindlessly obeying), blindly following authority, not being able to express one's feelings and opinions, etc. everything protects the child against repeated feelings of shame.

Something that many in our society would see as a desirable character trait ("but this child is polite!", "Your little son always does what you ask him to do") may (but does not have to!) Be an internal mechanism of the personality that protects against discomfort, that the child has experienced before.

The result of criticizing is an obedient child who ceases to trust himself and loses access to his intuition. He begins to believe that he will deserve love and acceptance only when he meets the expectations of an adult. He ceases to be himself and loses the possibility of being natural in the presence of others.

In her adult life, she will seek the approval and approval of everyone she meets on her way. It will control its behavior to be liked, forgetting its true nature. Each decision will be motivated by escaping the discomfort of shame.

Many people go to specific studies for this reason (because this is what their parents expected or because they need a paper that proves that I am valuable), they do not decide to change jobs (because if I fail, everyone will find out that I am hopeless) do they avoid intimate relationships (because when I get closer to someone, they'll find out who I really am) It is difficult to grasp with the mind the multitude and variety of consequences that can be experienced in their life by a person whose subconsciousness has become entrenched with the feeling of shame.

Shame is a fascinating topic and I have already touched upon it on this blog. If you want to better understand what this feeling is and how it affects our psyche, read my article Shame. How it works and how to release it. In it, I discuss in a bit more detail the defense mechanisms that govern our adult life in response to feelings of shame.

Criticizing children in this way, of course, has an impact on the relationship you have with your child. Most parents allow themselves to talk to their children in a way that they would never express themselves to an adult. Imagine making the previously mentioned embarrassing statements to your friend. You would probably stop being friends soon.

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Children have the problem that if they hear such remarks from their parent, they cannot just break their relationship with them. You are everything to your child and he will not stop loving you for this reason.

However, he may stop liking you and then you will lose something most wonderful - your child's trust. They will stop talking honestly with you, telling you about their feelings and problems - they will lose you as a companion on their own life journey.

I realize that some parents find it difficult to read about all these consequences (especially if they have used embarrassing comments), so here we end up discussing the effects of shame on a child's psyche. The good news is that this is all fixable. Let's see how to do it.

Healthier communication with your child in 4 steps

Step 1: Do your own work

The first step in salvaging the situation is the work you have to do on yourself. What drives a parent to resort to this type of practice is most often their own emotions, which are often inadequately strong in relation to the situation in which they arise.

This is because these are emotions that arose from past experiences (often during their childhood), are embedded deep in the body and are now recreated, they are awakened each time in a difficult situation in the relationship with the child. Own therapy will certainly help - and don't be surprised if you find the source of these emotions in your past interactions with your parents or siblings in the therapeutic process.

More than a year ago, I was working with a woman who came to IFS therapy with all sorts of things to work on. One of them was her explosive reactions to the behavior of her children. She was consumed from inside with a tremendous guilt for doing them harm in this way. The first step to dealing with this was to look at yourself with empathy and compassion - where do these reactions come from? What need do they satisfy? It was only when she managed to understand her own behavior that it became possible to free herself from this mechanism (which had its source in the distant past).

I am of the opinion that every future and current parent should undergo a psychotherapy process. There is a very good chance that the effect of the therapy will be less activation of such emotional states as frustration, helplessness and helplessness - that is, what is on fire in our relationship with a child whose behavior is far from our expectations.

Of course, that doesn't mean you won't experience these emotions anymore - it's too good to be true. They will just be noticeably softer. They will not be overwhelming for you - you will remain aware of them and remain free to choose your own reaction. This will allow you to reach for alternative ways of communicating with your child. It would be difficult to be drenched in frustration - then, to save ourselves from our own discomfort, we want to resort to fast-acting, simple and effective methods, such as embarrassment.

Step 2: Apologies

If you've practiced shaming your children so far, you have an important task to accomplish. While many parents will find it extremely difficult to admit a mistake, it takes a first step in order for you to sincerely and genuinely apologize to your child. And it is precisely such an apology, along with a reassurance that it will not happen again, that will have the most corrective effect on your relationship with your baby.

It will be largely up to you and your behavior that follows this apology to see how much your child's wounds heal. The word "sorry" is often not enough. It's important for your child to see that you really understand how hurtful it could be. Sometimes your child may also need to work with a therapist. It could be a valuable, freeing experience for him.

Do not proceed with this step until you have taken step one unless you are confident in your resolve to say goodbye to embarrassing comments.

Shame is a burden on children, that is, parenting without criticism

Step 3: Build a relationship

What will help you in difficult situations are not specific techniques or ready-made formulas, but, above all, being mindful of the quality of the relationship with your child.

In some cases, critical and embarrassing comments are only a small part of the relationship, and there is also a lot of love and good energy. Sometimes the hardships of everyday life or unexpected life events make us use such ways of coping with parental reality as embarrassment. Then we lose close contact with the child, a certain distance appears, our paths gently diverge. However, the solid foundation of the relationship is still there and returning to the former closeness will not be a big challenge.

Some parents, however, did not have a chance to build a good relationship with their child - one based on mutual understanding, respect, trust or common rituals. Then the work on such an account may take not weeks, not months, but even years. Merely changing communication here is not enough and a lot of work will have to be put into building the foundations that have not been there so far.

Step 4: Communicate with the language of love

I realize that many parents expect very specific guidance on what to say when their child is not listening. And while I believe that for every parent - and for every child - different words will be appropriate, in a few lines I will list some suggestions that may inspire you to introduce a different way of communicating with your child.

Before I do, however, I would like to introduce you to something that I think has much more power. Not ready-made formulas, but a completely new… language. Language to put you on the right track. It is a nonviolent communication (NVC) language that is completely non-judgmental. It is a wonderful tool that should be in every parent's repertoire. By using NVC, you stop talking about what your child is like and instead talk about how you feel in response to their behavior.

This method of communication does not cause shame in the recipient and teaches the other person how his actions affect the emotional states of other people. Below is an example of how the embarrassing message sounds different from the message in the language of Nonviolent Communication:

“You get dirty again, you don't listen to me at all ... You act like a child, where is your manners! You'll go down the drain again, you'll be punished. "

“Honey, you walked down the drain and got dirty. I feel tired when you do this. I need you to be more clean. Please, remember my request. " 

It is difficult to say which sentence is more likely to be successful. The first one is embarrassing and can lead to quick obedience, but it can also provoke a rebellion of the child who, in spite of the parent, will jump into each subsequent puddle. The second sentence lets your child know that they are important and loved no matter what they do. For many children it is motivating - treated as such, they want to obey their parents and act on their requests (although of course this is not always the case).

Most important, however, is the psychological effect that both of these modes of communication have. The former builds a burden of shame, the latter builds a relationship. The first is an investment in personality disorders, the second is an investment in healthy and stable self-esteem.

If you want to learn more about the language of love according to the Nonviolent Agreement, I invite you to read the article How to express your feelings and needs?

Here are some word suggestions that you can use instead of criticizing or embarrassing your child:

It looks like you are <sad / angry / tired>. It's totally okay for you to feel this way. I'm with you.

Please tell me about what happened.

Please tell me what it was like for you.

Please tell me what made ... <child behavior>.

How can I support you now?

I can see that  <event> made you feel <emotional state of the baby>. I understand that this is difficult for you. What you need?

When you do <child behavior>, I feel <parent emotional state>. I need you <need a parent>. Please, make <parent request>.

There are as many empathetic and supportive messages as there are many parents in the world. Don't take this list as something that should become part of your communication with your children, but rather take it as inspiration. Create messages that work best with you and that work well with the way you communicate.

Parent, that's all I had to say to you today. I hope you end this article with more understanding, deeper empathy - both for yourself and for your children - and with new ideas for good communication.

Please let me know in the comments how you are dealing (or not coping) with the feelings of helplessness and frustration when your child or children are doing something that is far from your expectations. Write what works best for you and what words and language you use to communicate with them. I believe that the descriptions of parental experiences and our mutual support will be more valuable than the knowledge contained in this article.

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