Our Own Monsters in the Closet, Part 2 :: Shame Resilience in Children


If you have not read Part 1 of this two-part series on dealing with shame in motherhood, you can read it here.

When Shame Instincts Begin

Recently, my three year old was playing with a toy that wasn’t working correctly. In frustration, he threw the toy which landed on our dog, Lulu. I immediately reacted by yelling at him and insisted he apologize. Instead, he declared that he didn’t like her, and hid behind a nearby chair. I realized for the first time I was watching his shame instincts play out. (If you haven’t read Part 1 of this post, you may want to read it first to understand more about shame instincts.) While my intention had not been to shame him — I was merely reacting to my dog being harmed — my actions triggered his feeling. 

Our children are bound to feel shame. As long as they have the capacity for human connection, they also have the capacity to feel shame. Try as I may to minimize this in my parenting methods, he will inevitably experience my human reactions to him in a shameful way. This is just what people do. For a little person completely dependent upon me for survival, my disapproval feels threatening. So he responds to threats just like any of us do: fighting, flighting, or freezing.

While I can’t prevent him from ever feeling shame, certain practices can help reduce my use of it when parenting. And I can also assist him in building his own shame resilience. Just like it’s my job to help him be brave about the monsters under the bed, I also get to teach him to stand up to the shame monsters in his head.

Truthfully, confronting our own shame monsters is the most important part of this work. I can’t raise children more resilient to shame than I am. This is a sobering realization for me, but it’s one I have to face if I want to help my child avoid the shame pits I’m familiar with. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote,

What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.

Raising Shame Resilient Children

Brene Brown’s work on shame resiliency is all applicable here, but her audiobook The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting is full of helpful suggestions for the motherhood journey. The following thoughts are adaptations from her book, as well as truth that I’ve learned from the shame resilient people in my own life.

  1. Pay attention to how you talk about yourself. Our children will take cues on how to talk to themselves from how we talk about ourselves. Criticizing our bodies, inabilities, and failures will teach them to do the same. If I lack compassion for myself, they likely will too. If I compare myself up or down to people around me, they’ll do the same.
  2. Practice authenticity and vulnerability. While hearing us abuse and belittle ourselves isn’t going to help reduce shame, neither is a mask of perfection that says, “I have it all together.” Truthfully, our kids need to see us fail. It’s okay for them to see us hurting, scared, sad, angry. Most of all, they need to hear us admit own our mistakes and apologize. Especially when our kids are the ones we need to apologize to.  
  3. Allow them to have their feelings. I’m the first to admit that when my son is frustrated I just want to fix the problem. When he’s sad, I want to “flip the light on” and help him immediately feel better. However, having emotions is a human experience. When I try to change how he’s feeling, I am teaching him it’s not okay or I’m uncomfortable with him feeling those emotions. Just like we as adults often simply need empathy, our kids need the same.
  4. Create a culture that embraces creativity and play. Home is the place I don’t need to keep my game face on. I don’t have to be cool at home! (If you ever got a glimpse into my family’s dance parties, you’d know this to be true!) This can be especially tricky with sibling competition. Consistently encouraging everyone in the family to play, be silly, create, and try new things will let them know home is where they can breathe deeply. 
  5. Love and belonging is their birthright. Every kid will have an experience of not belonging. But that doesn’t have to be true at home. Our children’s behavior, choices, or beliefs don’t need to determine how much we love them. I remind my son every day that I love him and he belongs in our family no matter what. 

Repair and Reconnect

Back to the thrown toy and shame-spiraling toddler . . . When I recognized the shame, I didn’t continue to insist that he come out and apologize. I told him I knew he felt badly for hitting her, and that it was okay to feel sad. I told him that he would feel better if he could come love on Lulu and apologize and that I was sorry for yelling at him. Talking with him gently and empathizing with his feelings got him out of the corner and helped him make up with the dog. We went back to playing after that. And I learned an important lesson on how my child’s shame presents. Learning to respond to him in a helpful way is a life-long process, and I’ll fail many times. But I’ll keep working to reconnect as long as I can.

I’d love for you to share any ways you are working to reduce shame in your own parenting methods!

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Katie, a native Alabamian, came to Birmingham in 2012 to pursue a master's from UAB in Mental Health Counseling. She works as a Licensed Professional Counselor in her practice, Present Wellness Counseling, LLC, as well as in a residential treatment center for substance abuse. She and her husband were married in 2007 and have a son, Harpin, who's been keeping them busy since 2016. She is learning daily how to bridge her child development background with real-life motherhood moments, and she is excited to share these experiences with her BMB readers. Katie loves any time spent outside, loves opening her home to share meals with friends, and loves her faith community. She practices yoga and Reiki, and leads meditation groups for developing self-compassion. You can find out more about her practice and her upcoming community trainings at her website, PresentWellnessCounseling.com.