Shame And The Mess It Makes

The other day I was driving with a friend. We had plans in a town located south of us, but when my friend (who was driving) got on the highway, she went north — out of habit. When she realized her mistake, she berated herself pretty harshly. She said over and over, “I’m so stupid! I can’t believe how stupid I am!” I said something about how it wasn’t a big deal…just a mistake.


This encounter got me thinking about the way we talk to ourselves and the way we talk to our children.


One of my favorite quotes is by Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline, who said, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”


It sounds crazy to even question that. Of course we don’t feel like cooperating when we feel demeaned and disgraced. Yet, every day, parents and teachers everywhere are doing just that — shaming, blaming, and humiliating children in an attempt to make them realize the error of their ways or change their behavior.


Last week, I wrote about using questions to engage and connect with your child. Here are some questions to AVOID:

  • “What is wrong with you?”
  • “What is your problem?”
  • “What were you thinking?”
  • “Why would you do that?”
  • “How could you be so stupid?”
  • “Why can’t you be more like…?”


Of course, shaming doesn’t always come in the form of a question. Parents also make remarks such as:

  • “You idiot!”
  • “Stop acting like a baby.”
  • “Grow up!”
  • “Bad girl!”
  • “Stop crying!”


The tone of a parent’s voice or a look of disdain on a parent’s face can also instill a sense of shame in a child.


In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, author Brené Brown says, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” I know what that feels like and I don’t want my kids to feel it, too. I especially don’t want them to feel that way because of me.


Yet, there have been times when I’ve realized the potential damaging effects of my words as they were coming out of my mouth. There have been other times, however, when I’ve been able to PAUSE long enough to CALM DOWN and think before I responded.


Parents tend to resort to shaming when they feel responsible for their children’s behavior or when they feel overwhelmed, angry, and annoyed. What I have learned through my own therapy and experience is that the way we talk to our children is often the way we talk to ourselves. And, in order to stop shaming our kids, we first have to stop shaming ourselves.


Marissa, 2006

Marissa, 2006


Example: After Marissa was born, my pre-existing anxiety took on a life of its own. When Marissa started eating solid foods, the mess she made nearly sent me into a panic at every feeding. My therapist insisted that I bring Marissa to our next therapy session and bring her food, too. She had me feed Marissa in her office and watched as I struggled to suppress my anxiety and overwhelming sense of inadequacy.


I told her that I was afraid of looking like a bad parent (as if my daughter’s messy face would indicate that) and that I didn’t want to make a mess in her office (lest she get upset with me). She assured me that she was ok with a little butternut squash on her carpet and then asked, “Were you allowed to make messes as a child?”


BAM! That question hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized that this belief I had been carrying around with me since childhood (messes are bad and if I make a mess, I am bad) was just that – a belief. Was it true? Were messes bad? Would the world judge me for making one? Would I still be lovable? Could I handle a mess? Could I dare to even embrace a mess once in a while? I started to calm down about the messes until the issue came up again several years later.


When Marissa was 6, she would spill her water at mealtimes nearly EVERY day. (This, by the way, is a totally normal characteristic of 6-7 year olds, who are still developing their coordination skills.) Well, this triggered my anxiety all over again. A few times, I caught myself yelling at her, saying things like, “How could you do that again?”  “How many times have I told you…?” “Why can’t you be more careful?”


I felt all high and mighty…for about a nanosecond…until I realized that my behavior was teaching her the exact same limiting beliefs about messes and self-worth that I learned in my own childhood. If I was going put an end to this cycle of shame, I needed to change my behavior, not Marissa’s.


Now, when my kids or I spill something, I try to react calmly with, “Uh oh! It was a mistake.  Let’s clean it up.” I might initially feel irritated because I have to clean it up or because something got damaged as a result of the spill, but I know that beating myself up about it or making my kids feel bad won’t change the situation or do any good.


When shaming gets our children to comply with us or when they work harder to please us, we think it has worked, so we continue to do it. But at what cost does it “work?”


Research has shown that shame in early childhood has been linked with all kinds of conditions, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, withdrawal, isolation, aggression, personality disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and self-destructive behavior. As if that weren’t enough, shame breeds disconnection. When we shame, our relationship with our children suffers.


I’m learning to view mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than failures or personal flaws. I’m learning to stop putting so much pressure on myself to live up to unrealistic expectations or take responsibility for other people’s feelings. I’m learning, as my therapist says, to “be gentle” with myself and with my kids.


For Marissa’s 7th birthday, we had a “Messy Party” in our backyard…complete with slime, shaving cream, finger painting, silly string, water balloons, and a pudding pie eating contest!  I even joined in on the activities! Everyone had a blast…and there’s no shame in that!


Marissa, 2012

Marissa, 2012


Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. What beliefs do you carry with you from your childhood that may not be serving you or your family well? How can you be gentler with yourself and stop the cycle of shame in your own family?


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