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How One Sentence Can Teach a Child Shame and Low Self-Worth

The power of shame is so great that just one sentence, used repeatedly in parenting, might teach a child to feel ashamed and lead to a lifetime of low self-worth.

Let’s examine a  common scenario: A child misbehaves by throwing a toy, then starts having a tantrum, and maybe starts to really lose control of his emotions. The parents try to manage the situation, stop the behavior, and teach a lesson. These are all laudable goals, but they may backfire.

One common question parents ask kids in these moments is:  “Why did you do it?” I believe this “why” question is the cause of a lot of emotional problems for children.

First, we need to understand that kids’ brains are not fully developed. They are born with a full complement of “emotional” brain, but very little “thinking” brain. The “thinking” brain develops over the next 20 years or so. This means that when they are young, they have poor cognitive ability to reason, be logical, understand the consequences of their actions, or fully consider the impact of their behaviors on others.

We also need to recognize that when any human is in the midst of an emotional “meltdown” and become dysregulated, he has less ability to think clearly. The “emotional” brain takes over and the “thinking” brain does not function well. For a child this is especially true, given their brain development. To ask a child to use higher-level thinking, especially when he is in an emotional state (tantrum), is not age appropriate. Even adults don’t think logically when they are enraged.

So, if a parent asks “Why did you do it” in the midst of a child’s tantrum, here is what can go awry:

  1. This question demands that a child switch from their emotional brain to their thinking brain in the midst of emotional distress. This is difficult for a young child to do. And — let’s state the obvious — there is rarely a reason children throw toys or hit their siblings. So the “why” question immediately sets a child up for feelings of failure and shame. He thinks: “I have no reason for what I did. I should be able to say why I did it, but I can’t. So I must be stupid. I am disappointing my parents. And why can’t I calm down like my parents want me to? I’m out of control. I must be crazy and my brain is defective.” I have had children express these exact thoughts to me during therapy sessions, so I know they think this way.
  2. Kids don’t get soothing and calming for their “big, scary” emotions. When children are emotionally upset they first and mainly need comfort. Parents must be the calm, safe place where children can go to get understanding and comfort. If, in those moments, parents focus instead on correcting behaviors and punishing, the child never gets to feel the safety of emotional regulation. Kids need emotional attunement from parents FIRST, to ENABLE them to calm down and think logically. This teaches them to attune to their own emotions and calm themselves down. This is a lesson for a lifetime of emotional health that is far more powerful than any behavioral lesson parents may teach. Children who can regulate their emotions properly will also then behave properly. But the parents must attune first and be there to handle the big emotions.
  3. Parents often divert to logical discussions because they are uncomfortable with emotions of any kind. They feel shame because their child is misbehaving and they want their own shameful feelings to go away. So they avoid discussing emotions, instead focusing on behaviors. What does this teach a child? That emotions are embarrassing, distressing, and should be avoided at all costs. What message does this send a child who is emotional? That he is defective and “crazy,” leading to thoughts of self-blame and self-shame.

Regular exposure to the “why” questions and behaviorally focused parenting sets up a self-reinforcing cycle. Children who have been parented this way start to have very negative feelings of self-worth. When they do a small thing wrong and parents punish, it triggers a strong shame reaction.

For some, they self-shame and “lash in” at themselves in criticism. We rarely notice these “good kids.” Others “lash out” with oppositional and defiant behavior — but the reason is that they feel ashamed, damaged and different. When parents ask “why” it confirms this. Especially if the “why” is asked in an impatient, angry, frustrated tone, not a loving, patient, caring tone.

Trauma is about feeling helpless in a fearful situation. If we can feel competent and act, then trauma is less likely to be harmful in the long term. However, a child who becomes upset, then is asked “Why did you do it” , then is not comforted AND then feels shame on top of the already distressing situation is likely to be doubly traumatized. Repeat this on a daily basis for years and you have a recipe for a person who has thoughts of low self-worth and has not been coached on how to control his emotions — a toxic combination.

Parents must get out of their logical parent/adult brain and try to focus on a child’s emotions and less on the behaviors. Behaviors of a child should only be used as a clue to what is going on emotionally.  When a child is sad, angry, or upset do not focus on behaviors, give logical consequences or ask “why”. Focus on the emotions with reflective listening.

Certainly it is appropriate AFTER a child is calm to ask about why they did something and help them process their thoughts and behaviors. But too much focus on logical thinking and behaviors DURING emotionally distressing events leads a child to feel ashamed.

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