Aliesha, 9, had reluctantly followed her parents from the waiting room into my office and slumped into a chair. Her parents immediately launched into a description of her latest behaviors and their concerns about how this would cause her to flunk a grade and be held back in school. This might seem like a “normal” family therapy scenario, but to me it was disheartening. (All cases are fictionalized.)
One of the saddest experiences I have in therapy is in a family session watching a parent completely ignore a child’s emotional experience. And yet this scenario probably doesn’t look all that significant to other people… I know that the parents don’t notice it!
What did I see happening here that the parents did not? I saw a child reluctant to attend therapy because she was ashamed of her behaviors and she knew her parents would pile on more blame and shame. I saw that Aliesha could not make eye contact with me or her parents (and her parents weren’t looking at her at all anyway!). Her body language was dejected and defeated and she never attempted to say anything in her defense.
Her parents completely failed to notice Aliesha’s experience and respond to it in any way that indicated they saw her and honored her emotions. They completely failed to help her deal with these emotions with warmth and support. Aliesha was left to manage even the big emotion of shame by herself.
I often use these moments to get the parents to slow down, stop their chronicling of misbehaviors and look at their child. It is often shocking for them to be asked to do this — because they so rarely do! Is it any wonder their child is misbehaving? I ask them to observe and guess what emotions she is experiencing. This may be the first time Aliesha has ever had her parents engage with her in this connected, empathic way.
A key to good parenting is ATTUNING to a child’s emotions — noticing what is happening in the moment and then RESPONDING to it with WARMTH. Helping the child REGULATE EMOTIONS happens next. But this process cannot begin without the parent first noticing the child’s experiences.
One helpful construct is to recognize that emotions can be divided into two groups:
- Primary emotions are deeper emotions that are often unexpressed, unconscious, or avoided. Shame, as you might guess, is the big one here. But consider feelings of rejection, disappointment, regret, pain, loss, sadness, etc.
- Secondary emotions are surface emotions that are expressed more readily or obviously. In high-conflict situations these often include anger and withdrawing.
LEARNING TO IDENTIFY SHAME
Because shame is the master emotion driving nearly all behavior — especially dysfunctional behaviors of Other-Blaming, Self-Blaming and Blame Avoiding — it is essential that parents learn to identify shame.
Shame has some immediate physical manifestations:
- Downcast eyes and avoiding eye contact
- Slumped shoulders
- Avoidance, leaving the room, turning away
- Isolating, shutting out, numbing out, silence, ignoring
- Anxiety, racing heart
- Stuttering speech
- Inability to think clearly
- Dissociating, feeling paralyzed
Longer-term behaviors can include:
- Poor frustration tolerance
- Anger, oppositional and defiance
- Inability to admit fault
- Grandiosity, boasting and gloating
- Inability to lose a game
- Tantrums when corrected or disciplined
- Lack of persistence at learning tasks, poor frustration tolerance
Many parents make the mistake of forcing a child to make eye contact when the child has done something wrong. I had one family who would hold their son’s shoulders and force him to look at them during punishments. Then they would scold him for his lack of eye contact — exacerbating his shame at a very difficult time.
I like to say that shame should be dealt out with an eyedropper not in gallon buckets. Parents need to recognize that if a child is feeling shame, they DO NOT need to add on more shame. When they pile on shame, it leads a child to learn to get really good at unhealthy responses to shame. This will have a very negative effect of making the child either excessively Self-Blaming or the child will become well defended against shame and become Other-Blaming or Blame Avoiding.
Parents fail to realize the irony that the more they shame their child, the less likely the child will learn to feel healthy levels of shame and guilt, which are needed for normal, prosocial functioning. A person who has learned to feel no remorse may develop antisocial tendencies. A child or adult cannot learn from guilt if they have developed “thick skin”.
I had one family where the child would react oddly when disciplined — by making faces, making loud sounds, engage in distracting behaviors, laughing or joking. The parents would send him to his room, not recognizing this was his coping mechanism for the heavy-handed shame-based discipline he was receiving. They were training him to divert from shame, rather than experience it in healthy ways.
Parents must get good at noticing how a child experiences and expresses shame, so they can avoid piling it on. The instant you know a child feels shame, you can stop disciplining. They get it!
Certainly, children need to learn to regulate shame as with any emotion, but the more parents engage in excessive shaming, the more difficult it makes for children to learn this skill.
Most parents don’t recognize shame because they are unable to recognize this emotion in themselves. Our society teaches most people to disconnect from painful experiences, especially feelings of unworthiness. Work to learn your own reactions to embarrassment and guilt, so that you can then lean in, rather than avoid, your child’s difficult emotions.
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