Why does my child feel so bad?: Understanding Childhood Shame, Part I

 “Sins” of commission, omission, and being

 As a general rule, children are great perceivers but horrible interpreters.  Adults often assume children don’t perceive things like tension, anxiety or conflict, but they usually do; children just misinterpret why the tension, anxiety or conflict happened.   When something bad happens (parents fighting, someone dying, being neglected) a child has to find an explanation for the bad thing; yet, the explanation the child usually comes up with is egocentric.  This is a fancy way of saying children assume everything is about them.  Children assume the bad thing happened because of something they did (i.e., sin of commission) or because of something they did not do – but should have (i.e., sin of omission).  If the bad thing is severe or happens often enough, a child will assume the bad thing happens because he or she is flawed in some way (i.e., sin of being).  For example, if mom and dad fight, they fought because I brought home a bad grade from school that day (sin of commission).  If grandmother dies, she died because I didn’t call to remind her to take her medicine – although I should have (sin of omission).  If I am chronically ignored, I must be chronically ignored because I am unlovable (sin of being).  The actual explanation for the bad thing is usually more complex than what the child assumes:  mom and dad fight because they’ve felt unheard and unloved in the marriage for years; grandmother would have died even if she had taken the medicine; and mom ignored the child because she was just trying to emotionally survive.   But those facts don’t matter because all of them are outside of the child’s egocentricity or everything-is-about-me perspective.

I recognize that “sin” is an emotionally-loaded word.  Why not use a more palatable word, like “error”?  While labeling a childhood mistake an “error of omission” (versus a “sin of omission”) may be more technically accurate, I don’t think it’s emotionally accurate.  Using politically correct words, like mistake or error, communicates a “my bad” or “oopsy-daisy” attitude, and this is not what most kids experience.  Kids experience shame.  Therefore, the word sin is intentional; not as a way to reinforce some type of theological argument, but because the word sin communicates the gut-level, searing emotion children actually experience when they mess up – even when they are raised by caring and well-meaning of parents.

Most parents do not intend to make their children feel ashamed.  Yet, life provides children with shame regardless of how kind or good a parent may be.  A great example is the biblical story of the fall.  According to Genesis, God the Father-Figure had only one request: don’t partake of the forbidden fruit.  Once they do partake, however, Adam and Eve do not act as if they made a “mistake.”  Despite the goodness of God, they do not willingly stand before Him and say “yeah, I messed up… sorry, Dad.”  Instead, they do what any kid does after doing something wrong: they hide.  Hiding or escaping is often the first behavioral manifestation of childhood shame.  Once discovered, God the Father-Figure asks them – perhaps rhetorically – why they’re hiding.

“Hiding or escaping is often the first behavioral manifestation of childhood shame.”

Next, Adam does the second behavioral manifestation of childhood shame: he changes the subject.  “I hid myself because I was naked,” he replies.  Notice that the core issue is eating the fruit; yet, Adam – like any child who is busted – immediately shifts the subject away from his sin… perhaps in an attempt to distract God.  At first, God seems to go with the distraction: “Who told you that you were naked?,” he asks.  But then, like any wise parent, God shifts back to the core issue by asking immediately, “Have you partaken the forbidden fruit?”

“Distracting others is the second behavioral manifestation of childhood shame.”

Finally cornered and without means of escape or distraction, Adam does the third behavioral manifestation of childhood shame: he blames someone else.  “The woman you gave me and commanded she should remain with me (hint: it’s kind of your fault, God) gave me of the fruit and I did eat. ”  Notice that Adam changes course and throws his wife under the devine bus.  Eve, who observed how hiding and changing the subject didn’t work, tries her hand at blame shifting:  she blurts out, “The serpent beguiled me.” Although it isn’t mentioned in Genesis, at this point in the story I always suspect that God audibly groans in fatigue.  (And I suspect it because, from this point in the story forward, the divine equivalent of timeouts are distributed.)

“Shifting blame is the third behavioral manifestation of childhood shame.”

Incidentally, the only behavioral manifestation of shame Adam and Eve don’t use is lying, presumably because they were too emotionally innocent; it takes a fall (i.e., experience) to lie effectively.

“Lying – the fourth behavioral manifestation of childhood shame.”

Despite the historical and scientific problems inherent in the story of the fall, I find it psychologically accurate: the fall is not a story about childhood error; it is a story about childhood shame.  In the story, Adam and Eve are like most children, and children experience shame or sin much more intensely than we remember – even if our parental skills are as close to Godly as possible.

 

The Why and How of Shame

Do we ever truly outgrow the egocentric, shame-inducing explanations of childhood?  After all, coming up with explanations is mandatory brain activity.  Whenever we are in some kind of pain (or afraid we might be in some kind of pain), the human brain automatically and unconsciously asks two questions: a “why” question and a “how” question.  First, it asks why the bad thing happened.  Second, it asks how to avoid the bad thing in the future.  A child cannot help but ask herself these two questions.  Our incessant search for meaning (i.e., why question) and causation (i.e., how question) can be very helpful, but they sometimes misfire.

For example, I did my post-graduate training at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of pediatric cancer.  Children would understandably ask why they had cancer and how they were going to get better.  Therapists, like myself, and ministers of various religions were brought in to comfort the children and answer these questions; questions the children could not help but ask.    The how question was relatively easy.  How were they going to get better?  Some of the best medical doctors in the world were going to treat them with chemotherapy, radiation, and – if possible – surgical resection.  But answering the why question was frustrating because the answer was not psychologically satisfying:

 

“Nothing you did or did not do caused you to have cancer.  Cancer is a mutation in your cells that happened randomly.  We don’t know why it happened to you, but – again – it is not because of anything you or your family did or did not do.  It just happened.”

 

Notice how this explanation is designed to prevent a child from attributing his cancer to either a sin of commission (“…nothing you did…”) or omission (“…or did not do…”).  There is nothing wrong with the explanation; however, sometimes it wasn’t helpful.  It is very difficult for humans to be satisfied with an explanation that relies on the concept of “random” – especially when a random series of events might result in death.  Some of children rejected the explanation outright.  They would say something like, “There must have been something I could have done.  Getting cancer must have something to do with me.”  Children would attribute blame to themselves (sin of being).  It was as if they would rather live in a world where things could be explained – even if the explanation implicated them – than risk living in a world where sometimes things, like cancer, just happen.

It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum.  As it turns out, so does the human mind.  Into the explanatory vacuum left in the wake of pain or fear, a child internalizes egocentric explanations about why and how the world works the way it does.  These explanations, while sometimes incriminating the child, give him or her a sense of control.  After all, the child doesn’t want the bad thing to happen (or to happen again); therefore, if an explanation seems to “fit”, a child will continue to accept it – even if the explanation also means the child accepts the blame.  If you were beaten by your mother repetitively, then you have to internalize a sin of being, like “I must be unlovable” or “I am bad.”  To believe the alternative (“Mom, the person I depend on most for my survival, is messed up”) would (1) be too scary for most children to consider, and (2) requires a non-egocentric view of the world – a view most children are not capable of having.

Regardless of whether or not they are true or helpful, many people continue to believe shame-based explanations into adulthood.  Shame-based explanations, like sins of omission, commission, and being, have remarkable staying power because, as far as the child-now-adult is concerned, they answer the why and how questions of survival.  And perceived survival always trumps accuracy.  Both adults and children may unquestioningly accept sins of commission, omission, or being so they can maintain a consistent, albeit incomplete and misguided, view of reality.

In part II of this series we will look at what a parent can do to help with childhood shame.

 

[The above is an excerpt from the book Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which can be accessed exclusively on Amazon.  A sample can be read below]

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