So much of my time in family therapy is spent on parenting education about the inadvertent ways parents create anxiety in a child. As this article explains, through their communication and disciplining methods parents can make a child fearful. 

Most parents come to therapy only focusing on a child’s behavior, as if that behavior springs out of nowhere. First of all, emotions drive many behaviors, especially in children, who are born with their “emotional brain” fully developed, but whose “thinking brain” is not fully developed until adulthood. So they are going to feel their “big emotions,” but not have the cognitive power to manage them. One of the major roles of parenting is to teach children social and emotional skills, especially how to calm themselves and regulate their emotions

So parents must begin to recognize what emotions are driving a child’s behaviors, especially the emotion of fear or anxiety — probably the most powerful emotion we have as humans, because it is the emotion that tries to keep us safe and help us survive. 

It also helps parents to recognize that fear is a very “sticky” emotion — it usually only takes people one frightening incident to remember something that was painful or threatening. You touch a hot stove once and usually never make that mistake again, right? Your brain felt that physical pain and stored that for very easy access: “Hey, don’t ever touch a hot stove!” You may even now, probably not near a hot stove, be reacting with a bit of dread thinking about that hot stove — that is the power of fear. 

In the same way, children will clearly remember the fearful experience of being punished, rejected or shamed by parents. 

Fear is great at its job of keeping us safe, but the problem with fear is that it needs to be balanced by a thinking, rational, wise mind. I remember as a child being on top of a tall building or cliff and worrying that my glasses would fall off. I had to learn to tell myself that this fear was irrational. I asked myself: Did my glasses ever randomly fall off when I was not near a cliff? They never had, so why would they fall off just because I was near an edge where they could not be retrieved? 

But for children raised around excessive anxiety in their home life, this rational skill may not be developed. Their “thinking brain” is constantly overwhelmed by their “fear brain,” creating neural pathways that allow the fear to take charge on a regular basis. The REAL cause of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is anxiety or fear. These are children who have learned to be on guard for danger, and as this article notes, they are in “fight-flight-freeze” mode more than they should be. Their capacity to learn is then very stunted or hijacked by this emotional override. 

Because I focus on the effect of shame, when I work with parents I add in a discussion about how they may be creating a sense of low self-worth in the child. Shame and fear are very closely connected emotions, because it is normal for humans to fear the socially rejecting and disconnecting experience of shame. One of the biggest ways parents do this is by asking young children: “Why did you do that?” While this question may seem reasonable and logical to your adult brain, please remember that child do not have a fully functioning “thinking brain.” They are impulsive and illogical by nature, so just asking this question is shaming for them. 

I believe this is also where parents begin to teach a child the improper way to handle shame. By asking this question of “Why did you do that,” the child is forced to rely on his emotional brain to come up with an answer for two reasons: He is in a state of anxiety and he doesn’t have a fully functioning “thinking brain” to begin with. 

So the child learns to link the experience of shame with fear/anxiety and develops unhealthy coping strategies and poor shame tolerance, such as lying to himself or others, blame shifting, self-blaming and self-loathing, over-compliance and perfectionism, narcissistic/sociopathic traits, or conflict avoidance. 

The typical scenario is a child who comes to therapy for “behavioral problems,” such as hyperactivity or defiance. The parents assume these behaviors arose out of nowhere and are a “brain disorder,” which is not true. I have to do a lot of education on the fact that parents may be inadvertently teaching a child to misbehave. Once a child has linked the shaming experience of interacting with a parent, the child is triggered into fear, which causes defiance or anger. The child’s brain then programs in this “fight” response as his coping mechanism and so it quickly becomes his go-to response when his parents criticize or direct him in any way. 

The result is a child — then adult — who doesn’t like herself (low self-worth) and also doesn’t want to BE with herself. This self-criticism and self-rejection is felt by the body and brain as a sense of threat, resulting in a shame/anxiety spiral that can lead to problems with anger management, anxiety and depression in adulthood. 

Parents: How are you shaming your child and making her fearful of you, of others and of herself? Please consider how you are creating anxiety and fear by your words. These are emotional experiences your child will carry with her for the rest of her life. 

You may also like:

How Parents Can Help Improve Emotional Regulation in Children

Love-Based Parenting: Stop Using Consequences

How Children Express Shame


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