How To Correct Your Child Without Shaming

Many of our children have come from significant trauma and that often prevents them from logical thinking. This can be frustrating, even maddening at times. Our temptation is to shame or lecture. But there’s a better way…

My kid had been caught red-handed. On camera, but also by the evidence spilling out of his bedroom. Literally…spilling out of his bedroom. If someone had rounded the corner and punched us square in the face, we would have been less shocked. And you better believe we saw red. Not only were we angry, but embarrassed, ashamed, and bewildered. This was not acceptable at all.

I was on a trip out West, so Kristin and I talked strategy once I made it to my hotel. We debated. We discussed. We wrestled over our next move. To be honest, we both wanted to lose it with our kid. We were so angry over this deplorable choice. This wasn’t how he was raised, we contended. All I wanted to do was look him square in the face and demand, “What were you thinking!?” Our instinct was to lecture. Our knee-jerk emotion was to shame.

But we knew one thing for sure….NONE of this would work. Period.

Why?

Well, for starters, think about a time you were shamed growing up. How did you feel? Ashamed? Probably. Embarrassed? Yep. Did those feelings make you want to do better? Nope. Me either. Second, we’ve discovered that deep within our children is a voice that constantly tells them they’re a failure. It repeatedly whispers that they’re broken and unfixable. That, my friends, is the voice of trauma. This couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. With all of our heart, we believe our children are beautiful, and bright, and talented, and perfectly designed. We’re constantly trying to speak this truth louder than the voice of trauma. But when we shame, or lecture we reinforce what the voice of trauma tells our kids.

What do we do, then?

If shaming doesn’t work, if lecturing is ineffective, how do we respond when our child blows it? How do we correct and teach our children? Is there a different way? I believe so. It’s a paradigm shift. It begins by understanding a few new principles…

  1. Compassion over Contempt. You want to lose it. I know. Me too. There have been so many times where I have, in fact. After all, we’ve been over this with them haven’t we? We’ve laid out the guidelines, reinforced the boundaries, and clearly illustrated consequences for crossed boundaries. Yet here we are. They’ve blown it. The temptation is to scorn, lecture, and shame because these tactics get a reaction. And isn’t a reaction what we’re going for? Doesn’t that reassure us that we’re getting through? Maybe. But at what cost? Our kiddos already have it embedded in their minds that they’re failures…they’re not good enough, not wanted, nor worthy of love. Our contempt for them when they make a mistake reinforces this. It’s time to adjust our approach and let compassion lead the way. This is not to say we don’t reinforce a consequence, or allow natural consequences to run point when they’ve crossed a boundary, but can we do this with compassion and not contempt? I think so. There are more fingers pointing at me than you, trust me.
  2. Observance over Instruction. We often drill down so heavily on being our kid’s instructor that our view becomes clouded to the most important aspect of our children: their heart. How often do we make winning an argument our goal? Traditionally speaking, this is what we’re taught as parents. Because we’re in control, because we’re an authority figure, because we’re…well…a parent! But what if we’ve been aiming at the wrong target? What if, instead of fighting to win the argument, we fight to win our kid’s heart? Orange Leader, Reggie Joiner once said this- “We don’t fight to win the argument, we fight to win the heart. You can can win the argument but lose the heart.” Truth! But there’s an added layer to this for those of us who are foster or adoptive parents. Our kid’s hearts have been broken before. The trauma they’ve endured has left them in an almost permanent defense mode. They’ve taught themselves to do something when adults start lecturing- shut down. Cocoon. Hide. You name it. Our shaming never makes it through the outer defense system they’ve built around their heart. We teach them nothing when we do this. Ah, but stopping, and observing their heart, and asking ourselves some bigger questions, and delighting in who they are before we try to teach them wins their heart. Isn’t that more important than winning an argument, or proving a point?
  3. Walking With Instead Of Over. What if we were to make an active choice as parents to walk next to our children as they learn to live in-spite of their traumatic pasts, instead of walking over them in attempt to gain compliance? What if we showed them instead of told them? This is two-fold. First, the old adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” needs to be buried. Can we all agree on this? It’s a toxic way to parent whether you’re a traditional, foster, or adoptive parent. If we want our children to learn how to live the best life possible, we must teach by example. And I believe the best way to do this is by actively walking with our kids, not over them, especially when they’ve made mistakes. We must be careful to not bulldoze our children in attempt to contain or control. Even if they comply, it’s not teaching them anything better. It’s just behavior modification, not heart-growth.
  4. ‘I Love You!’ over ‘How Could You?’ Barking How Could You, or What Were You Thinking, tends to be the ultimate shame. Why? It’s simple: our kids don’t know the answer to this question. They probably never will. If your kiddo is anything like mine, he or she doesn’t know because the part of their brain responsible for logic and reasoning is damaged or dormant due to trauma. My child suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which means his executive functioning skills in the pre-frontal cortex of his brain is permanently damaged from alcohol exposure in-utero. He can’t answer a question like ‘How could you?’ or ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘Why would you do such a thing?’ He doesn’t know why, or how. I used to think he was lying. And then I discovered the truth of trauma and what it does to the brain. Not only did my mind change, but my heart did as well. When it comes to love, you can use words for this, but your actions will speak way louder. Ask yourself: “When my child blows it, how do I respond?” Is your reaction to overreact, lecture, or shame? Or is it to reinforce the love you have for your child first and foremost? Again, as I said earlier, we crave reaction in order to know we’re getting through. But is that really the most important thing? Perhaps it’s that our children know we love them no matter what (even if they’ve messed up!).

I know what you’re thinking- this sounds passive. It sounds like a cop-out. Trust me friend….it’s the furthest from it. Actively choosing to take a different approach from the way you were taught, or the way you feel like responding, takes incredible engagement. As my good friend Jason Morriss reminded every dad in attendance at our recent Road Trip for Foster and Adoptive Dads, “Choosing not to shame, or instruct, or correct, but rather observe, delight in, and love your child with no strings attached is as active-parenting as it gets.”

And I can tell you personally….it’s a slam dunk winner for foster and adoptive parents.

Shaming our children when they blow it just doesn’t work. It reinforces what they already believe about themselves. Remember- because of where they’ve come from, what they’ve gone through, and how they cope when things get tense or overwhelming, shame is just another dark passenger they carry with them always. Observing, delighting, compassion, and love on the other hand, works to lay that dark passenger to rest and build trust and connection in it’s place.

Question: Have you struggled through this with your kiddo? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Tonya Young

    Hello Mike, thank you so much for sharing this invaluable post. It has taken my husband and I many years to learn this, but I can say that for all of the years we tried so many techniques and alternative therapies in order to “change” our daughter, the only thing that began to finally make headway into the connection and attachment we so desired, as well as her behaviors, was to change our approach to one of compassion and looking deeper, rather than trying to correct in the moment. She has had so many traits of RAD and ODD since she was a toddler, and this caused me so much fear in how I approached her for years. My own fears literally cut me off from her because I was trying to control her attitude, her words, her behaviors … none of which worked, even though I was following all of Karyn Purvis’ methods in The Connected Child. What I finally realized was that the heart I brought to our relationship was a big part of why connection wasn’t happening. I was saying all the right words, but with the wrong attitude, facial expressions and tone of voice. I still somehow thought she was actively choosing to be this way and it just burned me up, even though I’m a very calm person. Once I began to understand the impact of trauma, and see her through the lens of compassion and love instead of fear, my whole approach changed. When she was disrespectful or angry, I started to speak with a different tone of caring and empathy, and would tell her I could tell something was bothering her and that I was here for her if she wanted to talk about it. After doing this consistently, she began to open up and tell me what was actually bothering her … and I realized that she was so driven by fear herself, each moment of the day. All of these behaviors I saw were always, ALWAYS about something she was scared about. It’s been over a year now and she is more connected to us than ever before. We still have miles to go, but the changes we’ve seen in her tell us she feels safe with us now and that we believe the best of her. I realized that the goal all along was her heart, rather than perfect behavior. For all of us in the trenches, let’s remember to keep our eye on the real prize: Our childrens’ hearts. This is a journey of a lifetime … one that asks everything of you, but one that gives you everything that really matters in the end.

    • Tonya, you are most welcome. So glad to hear today’s post hit the mark. Keep walking. We are cheering for you! 😉

    • Heidi Huhn

      I love your words… “the goal all along was her heart rather than perfect behavior”. I will try to remember this in the hardest interactions! Thank you!

      • Tonya Young

        You’re welcome, Heidi. I find it’s in the hardest interactions that these ideas just fly out of my head, so I understand how hard it is to walk it out in real time. I guess we have to walk before we can run though! LOL. I was so sorry to read your post … my heart is with you for your son right now. That sounds so painful. My (adopted) son had a similar incident yesterday where he got dysregulated and tried to hit his favorite friend during playtime, and I had to explain (over and over) how his actions will affect the way this friend feels about him. He was very distraught after the friend went home and I felt crushed for him because I know he can’t help his reactivity right now. I’ll be thinking about you both as you process this recent incident and keep walking this out. Peace to you.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Thanks for sharing this! Gives us all hope.

  • Heidi Huhn

    I needed this this morning. Over the weekend we saw our 13 y.o.’s birth family and there were a lot of painful words exchanged. Basically they think that if we’d just shame and intimidate our son enough that his rude language would magically go away without any problem to his heart or psyche. Hard lesson for our son in the truth of what we’ve been saying: if you use certain language you will push away some people. (And he’s working on this at both school and home.) And he comes away with the certainty that they love him only conditionally and will abandon him… again and again. I’m so sad for our boy.

    • Oh Heidi, I am so sorry to hear this happened. Breaks my heart. Know that we are in your corner with this. You are not alone. Give your son a hug for us! 😉

      • Heidi Huhn

        Thank you for hearing me!

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Sorry this happened. We are with you.

  • Kate Sommerfeld

    Hello! I get where you are going with this, I really do, but I am not sure how helpful this was for me personally as an adoptive parent because one, it was all very general and two, certain situations call for different actions. You wrote: “This is not to say we don’t reinforce a consequence, or allow natural consequences to run point when they’ve crossed a boundary, but can we do this with compassion and not contempt?” The logical question then is: how? How do we do this? What are practical ways we have consequences and boundaries and still do as you suggest? Each situation is so different. For example, with our son who also has ARND, we absolutely cannot give a positive reaction for negative behavior because then that pattern solidifies in our son’s brain. We have had 6 years of practice to know this to be true. If he misbehaves and I shower him with any sort of love, he misbehaves to get love. So, when I read an article such as this, it honestly confuses me because if I choose compassion, observance, walking with, and “I love you” in regards to poor behavior, I am teaching my son that to feel loved you should behave poorly and so the the poor behavior increases. It’s backwards I know, but if my son realizes that his behavior has caused a rift in our relationship and that honestly, life becomes uncomfortable and unstable when he makes poor choices, his brain begins to connect the reaction with the choice and (to the best of his ability), his heart and behaviors shift…in the only dysfunctional and temporary way that they can. I totally agree that exploding, shaming, lecturing, etc do not work, at all. We have definitley learned that. But I also know that doing my best to make my child feel loved at all costs when they are choosing to be unlovable does not work with my specific kiddo and so I felt led to share just in case there may be parents in the same shoes as us.

    • Erin Padley McNaughton

      Kate- I am in the same place as you! We have siblings we adopted 4 years ago and have gone through multiple therapies to work in their behaviors (RAD and a dysregulatiom disorder) and I have faced the same things. Showing love in those moments makes them act badly to get that love. They both crave attention in any way they can get it. I long to be loving and compassionate, but have seen it backfire so I am gun shy. I too would love more specifics on HOW to speak in love while still maintaining boundaries and consequences to reinforce that the poor behavior is not okay. I struggle with my tone. I am a teacher and is my instinct is to teach in each situation and I am seeing that it is just not effective. I just wish I knew a better way to approach my two children in a way that shows love, but also helps them see their behavior is not okay.

      I love this post and I want to be this parent… I just don’t know how to get there.

      Thanks for listening y’all!

      • Kate Sommerfeld

        Thank you for responding Erin! It certainly helps so much when we feel that we are not alone. I wish I had advice to give. My husband and I usually find that we have to completely shut down emotionally and remain absolutely neutral during any sort of conflict with our kiddo. It’s not ideal, but it means survival for our family and though extremely hard on my husband and I, we found it’s the best way for growth on all levels for our almost 10 year old son. BIG HUGE HUGS sweet mama! I have no doubt that you are doing the best you can with what you have and that counts for SO much! Trust your gut and keep up the great work as you muddle through the “how”.

      • Erin, I totally get this. Been there done that. Check out my response above to Kate in regards to tone. Remember- calm and firm, calm and firm. Cheering for you! 😉

      • Allisonm

        My son has been diagnosed with RAD, chronic and severe PTSD, ADHD, and mood and mixed developmental disorders secondary to prenatal teratogens, i.e., alcohol and multiple drugs. There have been others, but these seem to cover the field. He became my son over nine years ago, at age four, and I became his eleventh mother. Nearly all of the professionals we took him to for help told us that they had never encountered a more severely dysregulated child in all their many years of practice with abused and neglected children. Few of them had any ideas. But as you no doubt know well, one way or the other, the professionals will make some notes in a file and go home to their own lives, but that child is going home with you and you are responsible for figuring out what to do to help your him or her recover and thrive.

        I was afraid to reward bad behavior. I wanted to teach appropriate coping skills, etc. But it became obvious that my son could not learn them from a place of constant dysregulation. He couldn’t remember what he had done because he was in survival mode, ruthlessly trying to escape emotional and physical annihilation. He lived in overwhelming fear. He simply could not regulate himself. I learned that the horrifying behavior was the only language he had for communicating the severity of his distress. He wasn’t choosing. He was desperate. Life and death desperate.

        In the face of this kind of severity, where no one really had a road map, I did what made sense. I stopped waiting for my child to meet my standards and started doing everything I could to meet his emotional needs. No matter his behavior (communication), I met his needs. I gave him my time, attention, love, presence, no matter what. No conditions. In the back of police cars, in emergency rooms, flipped classrooms, no matter where he was or what he was doing, I was his mother and I met his needs as best I could. Because my son can’t possibly regulate unless and until his needs are met. And he can’t learn any new skills until he is regulated. It’s simply impossible and it is unreasonable for me to expect otherwise. So at our house, it’s meet needs first, teach second.

        My son’s last neuropsych eval five years ago had not one single hopeful thing to say about him other than that he had committed parents. It predicted dire circumstances for the rest of his future. Since then, he as learned to read and do math. To get there, we had to figure out how to meet all of his needs until he could regulate, then keep at it until it became his new normal. He is kind, helpful, caring, and is meeting or exceeding all of his behavioral goals. He is increasingly able to regulate under incrementally increased stress. He is unrecognizable from the kid described in the eval.

        It’s a big shift in perspective, but one that is paying off for us.

        • Erin Padley McNaughton

          Wow! That is amazing! It seems so simple when you say it that way. It is so hard in the moment to be there and remember all this. I guess I fear that if I don’t teach he won’t learn, and I worry about the adult he will become. What you said really hits home though and makes me think. I wonder if I am meeting his needs. I do need to learn how to just love him and meet him where he is at that moment. I admit I am weak in this area. I am a teacher and my instinct is to teach and redirect poor behavior.

          Thank you for sharing that. It helps me see where I need to change and adjust.

          I appreciate all the adnice on here! This is a long, hard road and it can feel lonely. Thank ou for reminding me we are not alone in this and it can work out.

          • Allisonm

            I’m not a teacher, but another kind of professional who likes order and predictability and to explain things. I, too, worry about outcomes–a lot. There are a lot of teachers in my family and the educational/academic mindset has had a huge influence on me. I understand where you are coming from and know firsthand how hard this is in the moment. Fear, my own and my child’s, is the enemy of regulation and healing. We are a diligent and tenacious lot and we implemented everything we knew to implement and worked hard at it. If it was going to help, it would have.

            Key moments for me were really grasping that behavior is communication and that I REALLY didn’t want to shut that down. I wanted to hear it, understand it, and expand it to include more and more forms of communication that didn’t have such a big downside. Trying to shut down my son’s attempts to communicate his distress were going nowhere good. It was messy and awful getting through the worst of the learning process, but now my son communicates much more effectively, typically through words. Now that he’s regulated, he’s remarkably articulate. I found Heather Forbes’ writings helpful in this regard.

            Another key moment was understanding what regulation is and how significantly it affects my child’s ability to learn and use executive functions. The more I learned about the different areas of the brain and how they interact, the more I could see behavior as a symptom and get focused on the underlying distresses of having a dysregulated brain system. That wiped out a lot of the blaming and took me from seeing my child as “unwilling” to understanding that he was doing the best he could and would do better when he could do better. It gave me a clear rationale for meeting needs all the time, without regard for how inappropriately my child was communicating them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t correct when I know my child can do better at the time, but it does mean that I have to keep asking myself whether, at this moment, my child is able to do better, or whether he is overwhelmed and correction now is going to be felt as piling on while his need fulfillment deficit continues to build. Ross Green has written some excellent and practical books in this area that may be very helpful from both a parenting and educating perspective. The levels of intervention in the Empowered to Connnect materials are very helpful to me, too.

            Perhaps the biggest turning point for me was understanding the concepts underlying The Wraparound Model for providing mental-health services. The early pioneers in what became Wraparound were trying to figure out what to do when nothing was working. One of our case managers gave me a thin book called Everything is Normal Until Proven Otherwise, by Karl Dennis and Ira Lourie. Reading this book changed my approach to life with my children. It is about thinking outside of traditional parameters and systems and designing a comprehensive plan that is as close as possible to ideal for your child and your family, then collaborating, evaluating, adjusting, and pretty much doing whatever is necessary to get to something that works for you in practical reality. We utilize traditional systems to the extent that they are helpful, but don’t have to feel bound by or to them. When we need a creative solution, we get our team together to ensure that everyone involved has all of the information from each other’s perspectives and we collaborate to come up with and vet ideas. When we see an unmet need, we ask what the ideal way to meet that need is, then look for a practical way that gets us as close as reasonably possible to that. This is a mindset that helps me stay hopeful and empowered.

            You are right that if you don’t teach, he won’t learn. And the first thing moms teach their children is how to regulate. That is taught through consistent, loving care and meeting of needs. Infants and very young children first co-regulate with their caregivers, starting in the womb, then progress over time to more independent regulation. It comes so naturally that we often aren’t aware of what we are teaching. When our children don’t start off with that, they have to learn it later, when the process is hampered by the effects of trauma and by age-related expectations. We would never expect an infant to wait to have us feed or change it until it could ask politely using nice words. Some of our traumatized children have gaps in their learning and development that go back that far. I have had to adjust my expectations–not lower my standards!–so that I could meet my son where he was and teach in the language he could understand. As he has learned how to regulate, we have been able to teach higher and higher life skills, including asking appropriately to have his needs met.

            I hope there is something in what I said that helps you find a way forward with your child and increases the joy you find in being his mother.

          • Erin Padley McNaughton

            Thank you! That is very helpful!

        • Michelle Sackett McKinney

          Thanks for sharing this!

    • Kate, thanks so much for sharing here and for your honesty. We love it. You’ll have to forgive us- we cap our posts at right around 1200 words so we simply can’t flesh everything out like we’d like to. I see where your questions come from.

      As a fellow parent who has parented extremely difficult children for many years now I can tell you personally that for years I responded out of my emotions to what he was doing or had done (i.e. the bad behavior, bad choices), but because his brain was always at a simmer, ready to boil over at any point, my reaction would just cause him to escalate.

      I learned to do two things- control my emotions and always always always respond calmly. Not easy to do especially when my child was constantly antagonizing his siblings, pushing boundaries, being disrespectful, etc etc. But when I could actually respond this way, it de-escalated a lot of potentially volatile situations. Along with my response, I removed shaming, lecturing, scorning words and tone from my response (which I was very prone to do). These small tweaks in my attitude and tone made a world of difference.

      I’m in no way saying that when your child does something that is disrespectful, hurtful to others, or dangerous, you should not engage or do what you need to do to ensure he or others are safe. Not the case. What I am saying is that you need to consider how you view your child in light of these situations. He is not a bad kid doing something bad. He’s a traumatized kid acting and speaking out of his trauma. Respond according to that. Example: your son walks in from school and flings his bookbag across the room, screams at his sister, starts cussing at you, and refuses to do what he’s been asked to do. Your instinct is to shut it down, remind him who’s incharge, and tell him to knock it off- that we don’t behave this way and we certainly don’t talk this way.

      You may even say something (bluntly) to the effect of, “That’s enough! Knock it off right now or your night is over buster!” (Trust me, I’m using this example because this is exactly how I’ve responded.)

      But what if you were to respond calmly like this- “Hey buddy, I see that you’re pretty emotional right now. What can I help you with?” Give him a chance to answer. Then say, “I would love to help you calm down but remember, we don’t talk to people the way you’re talking to him, and we don’t throw stuff. I can’t help you until you make this right.” Then give him a chance to respond.

      In responding like this you didn’t allow him to get away with anyone. You gently presented a boundary but your tone was totally calm and disarming.

      This is all just an example, but that answers your question on how. Plus, responding this way doesn’t make him feel like a failure or a bad kid. And it doesn’t teach him that he can do whatever and the response will be positive. Make sense?

      • Kate Sommerfeld

        Absolutley, I agree with everything you are saying and I totally realize that you couldn’t possibly dish out every example on how to put this all into practice. That would take years, lol! It’s just when I see posts like this, my automatic reaction is “that sounds great, but how?”. Like I mentioned, I too have learned that shaming, lecturing, getting emotional does not work in the least. But I also know, reminding my son in the moment that I love him, that I am for him, and giving him positive feedback in anyway (even with my tone of voice) during negative behaviors only encourages negative behaviors. When my son is overly emotional, I do not respond at all if at all possible because he is looking for my response. He wants to see which behaviors get him his desired reaction. Not that he is truly thinking this, it’s all instinctual. With our kiddo, we cannot be overly positive or overly negative because he cannot handle either. If I have to respond, it is with like you mentioned a very calm but also very neutral tone of voice; very brief and absolutely no eye contact. Similar but different which is why I wanted to share our experience in case others are in the same similar but different boat. Or maybe it’s more similar than different and we just are coming at it from different angles 🙂 Thanks so much for your very thoughtful and through reply and for all the incredible information y’all share. I really really appreciate it.

        • It’s our pleasure. We are cheering for you! 😉

          • Kate Sommerfeld

            Thank you!

      • Erin Padley McNaughton

        This is great and SO helpful! It makes so much sense on paper, now to put it into practice 😄😄 thank you for sharing! I’m so thankful to have found this site! It helps to know I’m not alone! Thanks all!

  • Kate

    I am a new visitor to your site, and I will be back! I am a single mother (widow) of 2 girls, age 12 and 15, both adopted, the younger of whom has significant issues that we just can’t seem to get to the other side of. I am realizing that we will likely never get there, but I want her to be able to calm down and not feel as if she needs to control her whole world. We have had 3 hospitalizations in the last year, several services over the past 7 years, and several meds. I recently found an adoption specialist who works with post traumatic issues with adoptees and have been going with her to see him. Hoping we can make some gains and changes in helping her to heal. But the behaviors at home are almost unbearable for her sister and me. I will continue to read and learn from you and all the others here. God Bless!

    • A million warm welcomes to you Kate. We are so glad to be connected to you. So glad that our content has made an impact. Our team is here for you! 😉

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      So glad you are here!!! We are in this with you!