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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