In the course of everyday parenting, frustration sometimes gets the better of us. It’s understandable that a parent occasionally acts or speaks without thinking—but when we react this way, we are not teaching our children anything. Instead, we are shaming them.
Shaming can take on extreme proportions, as in some of the cases we’ve seen in the media, such as parents making their child stand on busy street corners wearing sandwich boards proclaiming their “crimes.” But even seemingly harmless responses such as “What were you thinking?” or “Don’t be silly, that’s nothing to be afraid of” can make a child feel small, insignificant and unworthy.
When experienced on a regular basis, shame can have long-term negative effects on a child: He may grow up feeling fearful or inhibited to express his emotions; he may experience depression or repressed anger that causes him to lash out inappropriately. As with many parenting techniques, shaming is often part of a generational cycle: Those who shame their children were generally shamed by their own parents. Changing this pattern starts with awareness.
Replay in your head some of the recent remarks you’ve made to your child when you were angry or frustrated. Did you say something similar to “What’s the matter with you?” “How could you?” “What am I going to do with you?” Visualize yourself being on the receiving end of a question like that. Each one suggests not that the child’s behavior was inappropriate, but that the child him- or herself is fundamentally flawed. And when a child hears often enough that he is a “naughty boy” or that she is a “bad girl,” that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When your child has done something she knows is wrong, don’t over-react. Put everything on pause, take a deep breath and stay calm. Then, ask her why she did what she did. Some kids are mischievous deliberately because they’re bored or trying to get attention—or maybe something else entirely is going on. When you probe and listen with empathy, sometimes a child will open up and give you insight to the cause of their behavior. There may still need to be consequences for the behavior, but that’s very different from punishing the child emotionally.
When kids open up about their fears or sadness or anger, it’s vital that they be heard with empathy and that they understand that their feelings are valid. Saying, “Oh, that’s silly” or “You shouldn’t feel that way” not only shuts down the conversation, it makes kids feel they’re wrong to have those emotions in the first place. Minimizing their feelings can cause your child to close off to you because they no longer feel heard or understood.
Parents often get furious if they feel their children are being disrespectful. But what about your own behavior? Do you knock before entering your child’s room? Do you listen to what they have to say? Do you give them their privacy? Children often model the behavior of those around them. If you show respect to the people in your life, your child will learn to do the same.
This last tip is actually the key to one of the most important aspects of parenting: teaching your child emotional intelligence (EQ) skills. EQ is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s emotions, and it’s critical for overall psychological well-being. Empathy and respect for others’ feelings are the foundations of EQ. If you model empathetic behavior for your children, they’ll learn to develop empathy themselves.
When your child misbehaves or disobeys you, it’s understandable that you feel upset, and it’s appropriate that the child should face consequences for that behavior. The important thing is that your child knows you are responding to the behavior, not to the person—and that you’re acting from a foundation of love and respect. There’s never any shame in that.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.