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.

Compliments: Can you give or accept them graciously?


Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.

People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.

At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.

Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.

These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”

Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”

In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.

She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.

A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.

To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.

When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!

I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.

With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.

Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!



Quoted in MSN News Story on the AMA Labeling Obesity as a “Disease”


Much of the Pack Leader Psychology book and concept is based on personal accountability. If one is unable to own up to faults or errors, it signals a person who has low self-worth and is unable to accept additional shameful feelings. Obesity is one sign that a person may lack personal accountability.  I am quoted here on the AMA recognizing obesity as a “disease” (nearly at the end of the story)obesity:

Parents: How to Teach Your Children to Have Low Self-Esteem!

Jan. 24, 2013

Parents, I’m going to offer you the simplest, easiest way to teach your children to have low self-esteem.

Oh, sure, the obvious way is to do any or all of the following:

  • be emotionally or physically abusive to your children or spouse
  • be emotionally distressed yourself, with anxiety, depression, narcissistic/self-absorbed, etc, (but don’t go get therapy!)
  • be a substance abuser
  • abandon your children physically or emotionally
  • be inconsistent with discipline or too permissive
  • be too authoritarian and strict

But those are all a lot of work!  You don’t even have to go to all that trouble. Here is the easiest way to teach your child to feel shameful about himself:  Don’t listen.  That’s it — the key to raising a child who feels bad about himself.

I see this every day in my therapy practice with parents and their children.  Yet these parents are just behaving as their parents did and as many, many parents do today.

To illustrate, here is one scenario of a typical parent/child conversation:

Mom: “What a beautiful picture you drew in school today.”

Child: “Oh, well, I think it sucks.”

Mom: “No, it’s great. Look at the pretty colors! And the people you drew are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom:   “Don’t say that. You don’t hate drawing. You are a good artist. Look at this nice picture you drew. We have so many pictures that you drew that are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, I told you it sucks. I hate drawing. I’m never going to draw again.”

I’m sure most parents can claim a conversation similar to that one. Normal parenting, right? Supportive of the child, building his self-esteem, reinforcing his talents, right?

Wrong! Instead, this conversation taught the child:

  • your opinions don’t matter
  • your feelings don’t count
  • your “self” isn’t real and important
  • your mother doesn’t know or care about the real you
  • adults don’t listen to your concerns or ask how you feel
  • talking about feelings is wrong and scary
  • admitting faults is wrong and scary and vulnerable

Now those are some terrific lessons in building low self-worth.  And all from a simple conversation about a painting in first grade!

Instead, I recommend to parents that I see in therapy that they use a simple technique called “Reflective Listening.” This is actually something we use as psychologists (Shhh — don’t tell!).

With reflective listening, the conversation above would go something like this:

Mom: “Looks like you have something there in your hand from school.”

Child: “Yeah, I drew this picture, but it sucks.”

Mom: “Oh, you think this painting isn’t very good.”

Child: “Yeah, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom: “You really, really don’t like drawing or this picture.”

Child: “No. Hate it. Everyone draws better than me.”

Mom: “Ah. You feel like everyone else in class can draw better than you do.”

Child: “Yeah, and Miss Smith didn’t say she liked my drawing.”

Mom: “Oh, so it didn’t feel good when Miss Smith ignored your drawing. It seems to me like you are angry.”

Child:  “Well, maybe a little.”

Mom: “And sad, too?”

Ok, so you get the point.  Reflective listening involves the extremely simple idea of reflecting back (hence the name!) what the other person says.  It can at first seem boring and repetitive, but if done well, it can lead to some good stuff:

  • the person feels “heard”
  • the person is able to process his feelings without solutions, direction or opinions of the other person
  • emotions are recognized and validated
  • his real “self” is honored and accepted

The first scenario can seem so “good” as a parent — you are telling the child that he is worthwhile right? You are saying his painting is good and he is good. But instead, the opposite is happening. You are in essence telling the child he is wrong, his opinion is wrong, and he concludes that his self is also not worth much. Notice in the second conversation how the child isn’t contradicted or challenged.

Reflective listening ideally also leads the conversation to an emotion. Try to describe how you see what your child is feeling:  angry, sad, frustrated, upset, happy, content. Honor those emotions and let the child see that it is OK to express and talk about emotions.

Ideally, with an older child, if you can introduce the topics of shame and the need for acceptance and belonging as the roots of most emotional distress, that’s ideal. But you might just need a graduate degree in psychology for that trick.  Or maybe just go see a therapist for family counseling!