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The Best Gift Parents Can Give Their Children

giftOn this Christmas Day, I believe the best gift parents can give their children is the ability to manage shame. Teaching a child to experience and respond well to the feeling of shame is a life lesson that will affect every relationship and social involvement for your child — a major predictor of and driver of emotional health.

How your child responds to shame will affect the quality of her friendships, the success of her marriages, her career and academic success. And this, in turn, affects her mental health for two reasons, both as cause and effect.

First, we know that close, emotionally connected relationships provide a sense of security and belonging that is essential for emotional health. Bonded relationships are so important, research has found that the physical health of married people is better than that of singles.

Second, an inability to properly manage shame is at the core of nearly all behavioral issues that we now label as “mental disorders.” Anxiety, depression, and personality disorders are all caused by overwhelming, unmanageable feelings of shame. The person does not know how to respond appropriately to feelings of shame and acts them out in two main ways: as anger and blaming/shaming others or as self-shaming. These dysfunctional responses often cause rifts in relationships and even destroy relationships, which affects emotional health.

shame artWe can see shame’s effect on couple relationships quite clearly. Conflicts in couples when one or both members have difficulty managing shame either quickly escalate or the couple mutually and unwittingly decides to avoid conflict.

In the escalation scenario, fights often begin when one partner accuses the other of some fault. (“You forgot to pick up the milk.”) An emotionally secure person can recognize the truth in this statement, calmly accept her forgetfulness and promptly and graciously apologize to repair the problem. A shame-avoidant person is so afraid of being criticized, she will quickly and unthinkingly lash out at her accuser, usually with a return volley of unrelated, often irrational, accusations. (“Yeah, but you didn’t text me until 3 pm and I left work at 5 pm so I didn’t have time to really think about it…”) I call this “zig-zag” arguing. When a person can’t accept blame, she often shifts the topic or blames the partner rather than admit fault.

The partner may then react emotionally to the irrational accusation (which is hard not to do when it is so irrational), and a fight has begun. The accuser then responds with more accusations (“You are so irrational! That makes no sense! You just forgot the milk. Admit it! And you always forget when I tell you things to do. You always ignore me.”) and the shame-filled person again feels she must respond with lashing out because she is afraid of admitting to those feelings of shame. In these type of scenarios, it is easy to see why shame is considered a primary emotion, because it is very often acted out as fear, or a secondary emotion.

Many times in therapy when I try to explore the emotions of couples in this type of fight, they are unable to recognize or admit to the primary emotion of shame. They have never learned to feel or have learned to ignore shame, so they bypass that feeling and go automatically and unthinkingly to responding with fear. This type of emotionally driven response is very unhealthy for relationships. Emotions are wonderful signals, but we should use our cognitive brain to control our responses to them.

Managing feelings of shame takes emotional strength and strength of character. A person must have a strong sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, which speaks of emotional awareness and resilience. She also must have learned how to make good choices and exercise cognitive control; rather than lashing out in anger when shamed, she must understand that she should be accountable for her own behaviors and respond in a pro-social way by apologizing or accepting fault.

So how do parents give the gift of emotional health to their children? By modeling their own ability to gracefully be wrong. Kids watch parents and absorb what they see, especially when learning social skills. Parents must consistently behave in ways that show they can handle shame. They must apologize and accept responsibility when wrong. They must not automatically lash out in anger when confronted. They must show remorse and attempt to mend relationships rather than insist on always being right or having the last word. They must also not avoid conflict as a way to manage uncomfortable feelings.

Shame is a pro-social emotion, as are empathy, compassion, love and kindness. Shame signals us to correct our behaviors so that we can continue to be accepted by others and fit into society. If we are unable to recognize or accept feelings of shame, how can we learn from our mistakes and misbehaviors and adjust so that others find us personally likable? We can’t. The inability to be wrong signals others that we are not good relationship material. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is never wrong? That means I am the one who is always wrong, even if the facts don’t support it. Without an ability to feel shame and admit to our own personal faults, we lack the fundamental and essential pro-social skill of personal accountability.

The ability to admit fault, apologize, accept blame and learn from our mistakes is how we repair relationships. Without the ability to do this, relationships will constantly be filled with drama and turmoil, rather than closeness and connection that is essential for our emotional health.

What better gift could a Pack Leader Parent give than the gift of emotional health?

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