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

In Part I of this series, we explored sins of commission, omission, and being as it relates to childhood.  Part II is about what we can do as our parents to help children work through feelings of shame or sin.

What Can I Do?

In addition to keeping your child as emotionally safe as you can, there are things you can do to help.  Here are a few ideas about how to minimize your child’s perception of shame:


  • Unpack your baggage. We all carry baggage from childhood; we all harbor our own sins of commission, omission, and being.  That is okay.  The critical issue is whether or not the parent is aware of the baggage and has sought to integrate or make meaning of it.  If not, a parent’s baggage tends to become a child’s baggage.  In this way, shame can be intergenerational.  (The sins of the fathers really can be “handed down” to their children.)  A question I often ask the parents I am working with is, “Based on your past, who are you afraid your child will become?”  The answers I get from parents can be surprising.  Often the answer is an ex-spouse or one of the parent’s siblings.  The most common answer, however, is that the parent is worried the child will become the parent.  Having such a discussion usually allows us to identify the parent’s “hot button” issues.  As soon as the child does or says something that touches the button, the parent is likely to become reactive: they swat flies with cannon balls.   Making sense of our own pasts – even if those pasts were not much what we wanted them to be – will help us be less reactive.


  • Own your feelings. Once you’ve unpacked your personal baggage, it will have less ownership over you.  In other words, you will be in a better position to be attuned to your child’s emotional needs.  This, however, doesn’t mean you won’t have any feelings.  If you find yourself in the grip of a strong emotion, don’t tell your child you are “fine.”  Remember: the child perceives the problem and is about to jump to egocentric interpretations.  Instead, be honest, while keeping appropriate boundaries.  The child doesn’t need to know everything, but saying something like, “Sorry, I’m really tired and frustrated today.  It isn’t you.  There is just some other things going on with me.  I will be okay eventually.  Here is what I’m doing to take care of myself.”  Here the parent owns her feelings, helps dispel some (but probably not all) of the child’s egocentric explanations, and directs the child to a plan of action (“Here is what I’m doing to take care of myself”).  In short, make the internal external.  Doing so will help the child in two ways.  First, the child will be less confused by the discrepancy between your verbal and non-verbal behaviors (“Mom is crying, but she says she is “fine.”  What is up with that?”).  Second, owning your feelings will help the child make sense of her own internal world and will provide modeling of how to deal with emotions.


  • If you can’t answer the “why” question, focus on the “how” question. Having a realistic plan of action can be helpful for a child.  This gives the child something to hold onto when she feels scared or vulnerable.  When children at St. Jude asked if they were going to die, I would have parents explain by saying:


“I’m not sure why this happened to you, and, yes, some children do die from cancer.  But you are in the very best hospital you can be in.  You are being given care by the very best doctors.  Right now, there is no reason to think that you won’t respond to treatment.  If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”


This didn’t answer the why question completely, but it acknowledged the child’s fear and redirected him or her to something they could control (i.e., participating in treatment) without sugar-coating the issue or sweeping it under the rug.


  • Share personal stories. The dinner table is a great place to swap stories about things that happened during the day.  But don’t share just your external life, share your mental life!  Only sharing what happened during your day without sharing how you felt about it is like seeing a painting in black-and-white: the texture, color, and vitality are all washed out.  Instead, sharing your internal experiences will help you child be able to identify their own experience.  Within limits, you can share how you were disappointed with something and how you dealt with that disappointment.  This way your child has a living model of how to deal with less-than-positive feelings.  Parents often expect their children to know how to deal with anger, for example, without giving them any realistic models of dealing adaptively with anger.


After you provide a story from your day, encourage your child to talk about the best part of her day and the worst part of her day.  Just be sure to listen without judgment.  Rushing in to “fix” a child’s negative emotion sends the wrong message; it suggests that negative feelings are bad and – by extension – the child is somehow bad for having them.   In order to tame an emotion, you have to be able to name an emotion.  Children who are not exposed to rich, personal stories of others may lack this ability.


  • Stay attuned. According to the old story, Goldilocks found one bed too hard, one bed too soft, and one bed “just right.”  Attunement is a “just right” process of aligning your state of mind with that of another person.  While not discounting your feelings or perceptions, attunement means opening your mind to another’s experience and point-of-view.  Attunement makes no assumptions that both persons have the same perceptions or experience.  The two people are different, yet linked emotionally.


A wonderful example of attunement was shared by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell in their book, Parenting from the Inside Out.  Imagine that a young child approaches a parent with excitement after catching a grasshopper in a glass jar.  The mother immediately shrieks, “Get that thing out of here!”  The child leaves feeling confused.  He was excited by his discovery and wanted to share it with his mother; yet, his mother was not attuned: her own fear of bugs got in the way of sharing in the experience and point-of-view of the child.  Does this mean you have to allow grasshoppers in your home?  No.  Remember that attunement means that you’re aware of both your point of view and the child’s point of view.  You don’t have to discount your own experience!  Cognitive scientists call this “simultaneous processing.”  An example of simultaneous, attuned processing would be if the mother said, “Yes, that is kind of cool!  I can see why you are so excited, but it would probably be happier outside.  Why don’t I help you as you tell me all about how you caught it.”  In this example boundaries are maintained, but the child’s emotional experience isn’t shot down.  As stated by Siegel and Hartzell, “it is important to attune to, or resonate with the emotional experience inside the child before changing the child’s external behavior” (p. 54).  Whenever possible, it is important to connect before we redirect.


  • Be willing to repair. Years ago, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott introduced the idea of the “good enough” parent.  Winnicott believed no parent could be perfectly attuned to his or her child every moment of every day.  This was not realistic and – according to Winnicott – was actually unhelpful.  The child needed, with moderation, experience with frustration (i.e., times when the parent and others were not perfectly attuned with him).  In fact, Winnicott suggested that well-adjusted children came from homes where parents were: (1) aware of when connection or attunement was lost; and (2) willing to repair the disconnection by owning their part of the mistake.


It has been said that the cover up is worse than the crime.  When it comes to parenting, continued silence is worse than original disconnection.  When I was about eight or so, a baby duck from my neighbor’s backyard wondered into our backyard.  My neighbors had been celebrating Easter with baby ducks.  I didn’t know this at the time.  All I knew was that I came home from school and a baby duck magically appeared in my backyard!  I had never seen anything so cool and unexpected.  My father got home a few hours later and I showed him the duck excitedly.  “Get it out of the house before it craps on the carpet,” he murmured heatedly.  I was crushed.  My father’s reaction was so different from my typical experience of being with him.  Yet, within 30 minutes, dad was by my side, “I’m sorry” he said sincerely.  That moment of repair helped weld me to him.  In fact, it was a bitter-sweet memory that I rehearsed at his funeral some 30 years later.  Sincere and meaningful reconnection has the power to diffuse childhood shame.  I find it comforting to know that the persons with whom I’m closest tend to be the people with whom I’ve had disagreements and with whom I’ve needed to initiate or receive repair.  Isn’t it comforting to know that the working through process turns out to be much more important than the original problem?


These suggestions won’t completely protect your child from shame.  Eventually, we’re all going to partake of our own personalized, forbidden fruit.  But after our fall, we rise.  And how we help each other to rise can make all the difference.


[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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