Breaking Multi-Generational Shame Cycles

emotional intelligence 

By Ashley Patek

Breaking Multi-Generational Shame Cycles

As soon as the words left my lips and I watched my child shrink into herself, I remembered that old familiar feeling. Like my three-year-old standing before me, I too was the child looking at her feet feeling like she was bad. As I grew from toddler to teen, those feelings became expansive and I found myself contemplating my worth.

Shame. 

No one is born ashamed. It is a learned, self-conscious emotion. 

Shaming messages are most powerful when they come from those we are closest to. For young children, no one fits this bill more than their parents or caregivers. From the earliest of years, a child’s body is being wired for future relationship patterns, and how we choose to parent directly influences this.

Children want and need to fit into their family system. They are designed knowing that they must keep their attachments close in order to survive. Because of this innate knowledge, children learn to shut down the parts of themselves that get hit … the parts that get them left alone in a room … the parts that are gaslighted and shamed. These are the ways we make our attachments work for us when we are younger. 

Shame Is Multi-Generational 

We all have some internal, mild shame that is uncomfortable. This is nature’s way of helping us rein in our impulses so we can stay safe, live well with others, and reach our goals. Toxic shame, however, occurs when our feelings, wants, needs, and behaviors are met with repeated punishment. When exposed to toxic shame, it flares up throughout our lives, lasting long past the circumstance. 

For most of us, it follows us into our own parenting journeys. We are wired to shame because it’s the way our parents reared us and their parents before them. It’s multi-generational. 

In an attempt to “teach” us right from wrong and curtail undesired behaviors and emotions, tactics such as spanking, Time-Outs, and other punitive measures were often used. From these, we didn’t learn solid emotional regulation skills or empathy or respect. We learned that we were flawed, not enough, and unworthy. 

Before I go further, it is important to say that most parents do the best they can with the awareness and resources they have available to them. This is not a space to shame those who have shamed us but to grow our compassion for them.

The Shame Cycle

Imagine yourself in aisle six of the store. Your child is overly tired and hungry, and when you deny her request for the ten boxes of cookies she gathered, she and the cookies both hit the floor. 

The heat of the gazes and judgment (real or perceived) from those around you pulls you out of the moment with your child. You’ve felt this feeling before. The internal shame is mounting, your own not-enoughness rising.  

In an attempt to deflect the shame, our body, which remembers the pain, aloneness, and fear that comes along with it, jumps into protective mode. This doesn’t make us a bad parent, this makes us a parent with inner shame wounds whose body is doing what it put in place long ago to survive. 

The result? To avoid shame, we inadvertently shame our children. It comes out unconsciously as we hiss a threat, yell, lecture, or make wrong her biological instinct to want and feel. With that, your child’s eyes get low, and now all eyes are on her. Her connection with you is cut, and she is left with her own feelings of not-enoughness, judgment, and shame. 

The point is that if we aren't aware of our own tendencies to shame, we won't notice when they get triggered. We'll just act them out onto our children, passing shame down to the next generation.

Breaking The Shame Cycle

Many of us realize that we want to break the shame cycle. And we also realize that it’s not an easy thing to do. 

Here are some tools. 

1. Reclaim your worth

Take a moment and ask yourself, “Where do shame and not-enoughness live in me?” Chances are, the answer to that question originated long ago when you were a child. Then, wrap yourself in a hug and tell the child inside of you what she/he has needed an adult to say for so long … 

You are worthy. You are enough. Your feelings are sacred. Your wants and needs are safe. 

There is nothing defective about who you are. Nothing. 

2. Be mindful of your words 

Unfortunately, many of the ways we were taught to guide children are surrounded by shame and judgment. The way we speak to our children becomes their internal dialogue so our words matter. 

Things we may say: 

  • “Why won’t you share with your sister?! She is always sharing with you?!” (Not only does this make your child’s desire to keep his toy wrong, it can lead to comparison and sibling rivalry) 
  • “We don’t talk like that in this family. You should know better!” (Children internalize, Well, if we don’t do that in this house and I just did it, maybe I don’t fit in here. In addition, in general, when we tell our kids what they should, have to, and need to do, it conjures up shame). 
  • “You’re so naughty! Can’t you stop giving me trouble for one moment?” (Children learn that their unpleasant emotions and behaviors are undesirable, and therefore they are undesirable). 
  • “You have a whole room of toys. Isn’t that enough for you?”(Children learn that asking for what they want is wrong, bad, or inconvenient). 

Instead, state an observation, validate and/or set an empathetic limit: 

  • “I see two kids who want the TV remote. I can understand where that would feel hard. I trust you both to figure it out.”
  • “Wow, those are big words. By yelling, you’re showing me that something doesn’t feel good to you. Let’s take a moment to calm our bodies together, and find a new way.”
  • “I see you jumping on the couch. It seems like your body wants to move, huh? You can jump outside on the trampoline or we can jump down the hall together like bunnies.”
  • “That toy looks so cool. What do you like about it? We can put it on your birthday wish list.”

When we state an observation, validate and set an empathetic boundary, our children develop the wiring to co-regulate, and eventually self-regulate. 

3. Use a Time-In

When shame becomes a parenting tool to reform behavior, it punctures a child’s self-esteem, deteriorates the parent-child relationship, and greatly affects the developing brain. Children begin to attach their identities to their behaviors, believing that the mistake is not in what they do but in who they are. As a response, children may suppress their emotions and become parent pleasers or the shame can manifest as defiance and anger. When children feel criticized, they tend to push against limits and feel ashamed of their natural impulses. 

But (but!) when we lead with connection and discipline, children are more likely to participate and work with us. They internalize that all feelings are safe, and while there may be boundaries around some behaviors, who they are isn’t defined by what they do. They learn that there is always a place for them in their family system. Using a Time-In as a daily ritual creates a safe place for this type of connection and learning. 

Breaking the shame cycle is some of the hardest work, and it is also the most supreme. 

•  •  •

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