Why Shaming Your Children For Bad Behavior Isn’t Working!

Chances are, you already know this. So do we. But for some reason, we continue to resort to shaming, thinking we’ll see different results. We won’t. More importantly, we’re causing deeper damage when we do so.

Lonely boy

I get it. I fully understand how we can promise not to anymore, only to slip back into it when our kiddo blows it, and doesn’t seem to care or show emotion. Can I just put your mind at ease with that? I personally struggle with this too. You’re not alone. If nothing else, let the “Me too” of what I just said wash over you like warm water. Considering the fact that you and I are often pushed to the absolute edge (or beyond) by our children’s disorders, attachment issues, severe trauma, or impulsive choices, it makes sense why we would resort to shaming.

Even as I write this, I replay a few instances from this past month with my children. I also replay the look on their faces and their “flight” reaction to me (which is enough for me to choose to change!). I’m in this trench with you my friend. But I have to tell you….out of the 15 years I’ve been a parent, and the times I’ve screwed up on this journey (which almost outnumbers the stars in the sky…almost), I’ve come to a harsh realization:

Shaming doesn’t work!

More than that, shaming is damaging. In my early years, I thought this was the way you got through to your children. I thought the response was what I needed to know that I was on the right track. That was before I had kids though. And that was especially before I became the parent of children from traumatic places. Now, as we work to navigate the twisty, winding road of trauma I’m convinced…this just doesn’t work.

Then, Why Do We Do It?

For two reasons really. First, it was the way some of us were raised. Our parent’s shamed us when we screwed up, because their parent’s shamed them, and their parents before that shamed them. It’s generational. And, perhaps for a generation it worked (although I seriously doubt it). We also do it because we want a reaction.

…A reaction means we’re getting through!

…A reaction means they’re connecting the dots!

…A reaction means they’re sorry for what they’ve done!

Or does it?

I remember hearing the words from my first grade teacher…. “Michael, shame on you!” They still ring in my head more than 34 years later. I can close my eyes and see the cross expression on her face. I see her pointed finger aimed at my nose like a loaded gun. I feel the deep, cold echo of her words as she scolds me in front of my peers. I see my little blonde head nod as she demands to know if I understand my wrongdoing. She’s satisfied with my nod and subsequent tears. I keep my eyes closed for a while longer and envision it as if it were yesterday. Then I remember…

Her words weren’t getting through….I wasn’t connecting the dots…and I surely wasn’t sorry for what I had done.

I was nodding (and eventually crying) for one reason: To get her to stop! I was humiliated. I just wanted to run away. And I hadn’t come from a place of trauma. It makes me realize how much more damaging this is for our children.

If Not Shame, Then What?

Again, let me reassure you….I get it. I’ve been there. My kid has driven me to the point of total exhaustion by his choices, attitude, and behavior. Because of this, I have a tendency to shame. Yes, they make choices that we wish they wouldn’t. Yes, they push buttons repeatedly. Yes, they steal, hoard, lie, and manipulate. But there’s a reason for all of this…and shaming isn’t the answer. So then, what is?

Before we unpack the choices, the behavior, the attitude, or the defiance, we need to ask a bigger question. That question is simply, “Why?” Why does my child do the things she does? Why does he steal stuff? Why does she hide food under her bed? Why does he stuff pee-soaked pull-ups in the back of his closet instead of throwing them away? Why does he convince the teacher he doesn’t get enough food at home? Why does he push buttons? When we answer the why, we can begin to understand the how.

The why is trauma. The why is a dark memory that plays on repeat in their minds. It’s a place that you and I know nothing about. Shaming only thrusts them deeper into this place. When we resort to shaming, we tell our children they’re not good enough for anything positive. We communicate to them that they’ll never be better than their mistakes. So how do we guide, even discipline when necessary, a child who’s trauma prevents them from understanding the weight of their behavior? There are two ways…

  1. Showing verses Shaming. This has many facets, but the first, and most important, is to show the positive. Second, show what appropriate behavior looks like. Show the cupboard where you keep food. Show them it’s never locked and there’s always enough to eat. Show them where wet laundry goes and remind them it’s okay if they have an accident. They won’t be in trouble. There are washing machines for this. Remember, their fear from the past is telling them they’re going to be in big trouble. Show them otherwise.
  2. Conversation verses Consequence. One of the things I struggle with is jumping to consequence. My child screws up, BOOM…consequence! In doing this, I communicate that they’re bad. And I neglect an big opportunity to lead my child through their fear. Their choice may still warrant a consequence, but consequence should never precede conversation. And if they need a consequence, say it, and don’t lecture or continue to reiterate it day after day. A gentle reminder if they forget will do. Stay calm…and be firm.

I have a friend who’s child routinely leaves her pee-soaked underwear stuffed in the back of her closet. Recently, out of his frustration, he decided he was going to make her do all of her own laundry as punishment. Seems logical. Seems like a fair consequence. But then he realized something- she’s behaving this way out of a deep fear that lingers in her mind from past trauma. It’s a place he knows nothing about. Because of this, he changed course. Instead of shaming, guilting, and enforcing a consequence, he entered into a conversation with her. Then, in an act of grace, he took her to the store and let her pick out new underwear.

This precious child, who spends most of her days acting out of fear and flight, saw light in her darkness. Her father is showing her she’s good enough. She’s worthy. She’s loved in-spite of anything she went through in the past.

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

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  • Allisonm

    Great suggestions for putting relationship and connection first and a good reminder that none of us gets this right every time.

    I am an adoptee as well as an adoptive parent. There’s a shame that comes from losing one’s first parents through abuse, neglect, or relinquishment. I felt that shame–that fundamental anxiety about what is wrong about me that caused my birth parents to not care for me–from my oldest memories, long before I could give it a name or a reason. I grew up terrified by criticism. The most indelible memories from my childhood are incidents where I felt shamed or humiliated. For me, they affirmed and compounded my feeling of “wrongness” and not belonging. They never, ever, helped me change. My fear- and anxiety-driven behavior just got more intense until I was able to work through the underlying assumptions I had formed about my worth.

    I see the same fundamental shame and anxiety in my kids, who drew conclusions about their own worth and safety from their first parents’ abuse and neglect of them, followed by years of disrupted placements in foster care. Our mental-health agency taught us to try to keep corrections to two or fewer sentences and when possible, to present them in a fun and playful way. We were also taught not to ground our kids from participation in any family activities because we were trying to cultivate belonging and welcome. We were advised that when things got really tough with one of our children, we should look for ways to disrupt their shame spiral by doing something special and unexpected to have fun with them and build some new, good memories to compete with the old shame assumptions. That is so far off of the reward and consequence system I was taught in foster care classes, but, judiciously applied, it has worked to further our long-term intention to help our children heal and realize their extreme value in the eyes of their Creator.

    • Thanks Allison. Glad you liked the post. And great insight here too. 🙂

  • Blessed

    So very frustrated here. We have 2 siblings both showing similar behaviours and we are feeling like we are drowning dealing with the same behaviours day after day for the last three plus years. Of course yes we are guilty of shaming out of pure frustration. Nothing seems to work. Rewards, positive reinforcements, reacting to behaviour, not reacting to behaviour. Shaming, not shaming and gently reminding. How many times does one have to go through it before seeing any positive glimmer of hope? We are past exhausted. The positive can only seem to last so long before in pure exhaustion you give up. Any suggestions?

    • I think you need to have firm boundaries along with the positive reinforcements. We always tell folks (especially those who are raising children with FASD) to be calm and firm. Calm in your approach, firm in your boundaries.

      • Blessed

        Thank you Mike. A good suggestion I will think about how to do this. How do you handle when you have clear and firm boundaries and calmly reinforced and after the 10th repeat of the behaviour or the 20th or 30th nothing is changing?

    • Allisonm

      We started off trying to deal with and change behavior. We failed at that. And we were exhausted. When we were taught by trauma and attachment therapists to listen to what the behavior was communicating to us about our children’s unmet needs, everything began to change for our family. As we learned the language of trauma-driven behavior, we saw our children’s emotional needs more clearly, then learned how to meet them more effectively. With their emotional needs met, our children learned what calm felt like. Their abilities to learn, remember, and choose wisely improved slowly as they healed. We saw progress in every area of our lives as individuals and as a family. It was totally counter-intuitive for us, but now, nine years later, we no longer live in constant crisis.

      • Blessed

        Allison it sounds like such a far away dream to no longer live in constant crisis. Trying to deal with and change behaviour and constantly failing and being exhausted has been our last three years. I can’t even begin to know how to go about figuring out how to do what you’ve done. I’m praying for resources To help us to get to that point, we have read books but feel so lost. Every single moment of parenting our two youngest is different than raising our biological. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really a good thing for experienced parents who already have a way of doing things to try and tackle raising trauma kids. Maybe it would be better if we hadn’t had any previous experience at all so we would more easily be able to learn as we go than try and relearn what is already engrained.

        • Allisonm

          We were first-time parents and wondered whether it would have been easier if we’d had more experience! The bottom line is that it’s just hard, no matter where you start from.

          The first thing I had to do was change the words I thought with inside my head to ones that didn’t judge my kids’ behavior as good or bad. Now, I think in words about physical and emotional safety and regulation. My kids were severely dysregulated and didn’t know how to get regulated. I went to classes, conferences, therapy sessions, support groups and anything else I could find to help me learn about how trauma, substance exposure, etc., affects the brain and what I could do to help my kids regulate until they could learn to regulate themselves. We have benefited greatly from the work of Karyn Purvis and Heather Forbes who each have websites.

          The more extreme our kids’ behavior, the more severe the distress it communicated and the more they needed me to come alongside them to nurture and help them regulate. My kids had a lot of unhealthy coping strategies, but until they could get calmer for long enough (months) to establish a new normal and learn new, more effective skills, we tolerated and respected the fact that our kids were trying to regulate and worked toward a healthier state. We took the term “manipulative” out of our vocabulary in favor of “trying to get their needs met.” The fact is that our kids are amazingly determined to survive. That is a huge strength. But it’s hard to remember that when their imperfect coping skills are about to drive me over the edge and I haven’t had restful sleep in years, but building on that strength and working toward healing has been so much more successful and satisfying than fighting against it in an attempt to eradicate it in favor of “good” behavior.

          As a successful parent of non-traumatized children, you figured out what worked and you did it. You didn’t start out knowing everything. You have practice at learning how to parent. That is a huge strength. It means you are committed to meeting your children’s needs and can learn how to do it. You can probably learn a lot faster than we did because you have a lot of practice at the basics. There is every reason to be hopeful for a happier and healthier future for your family.

          • We so so so love it when you guys begin to dialogue on here. 🙂 🙂