Shame has long been a weapon wielded to modify a child’s behavior. We see it when parents and other caregivers use public shaming and humiliation as a form of discipline. For example, posting something embarrassing on social media, like that ghastly “Get Along T-Shirt” trend where parents put feuding siblings in an oversized shirt until they learned to “get along.
But shame also creeps into the quieter, everyday discipline we commonly use, like punishments, lectures, and criticisms. At times, our language is laced with shame, and even our facial expressions can drip with it. It’s something we’ve probably all experienced as children, and its toxic effects likely linger with us even now, running the critic in our own heads. Sometimes this is the reason why we continue the cycle of shame on our own kids.
According to world-renowned shame researcher and author, Brené Brown, shame is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” And this, folks, is why it is so powerful. This is why it seems to work quickly to bring a child into line, making it all the more tempting when times feel desperate.
It works because it is excruciatingly painful, and it cuts to the bone. It eats away at a child’s core emotional need to feel loved and connected, leaving them feeling small, unworthy, flawed, and unacceptable. When felt consistently, it sinks down into a child’s self-worth, poisoning it slowly until they can no longer recognize their inherent goodness - their enoughness. And if it is not properly healed, that same child will battle their shame gremlins for a lifetime.
Healing Your Inner Child from Shame
As I said, we all experienced shame in childhood at some point, if not at the hands of our parents, then perhaps from a teacher, a bully, a coach, or a peer. If you’re lucky, you only experienced mild shame on rare occasions, but for many children, shame was a constant companion throughout childhood, and their wounds run deep.
The shame you experienced in childhood inevitably helped shape who you are. As a result, you may now struggle with any of these effects:
- Harsh inner critic
- Lack of boundaries
- Poor self-esteem
- Suppressing emotions
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Social anxiety
I’m sure there is much more that could be added to this list, but the point is that your inner child could use some extra love to heal your shame wounds, both for your own well-being and so that you do not repeat the cycle with your own little ones.
The key to healing old shame wounds is compassion, both self-compassion and compassion from others. Because shame occurs relationally, it makes sense that it can be healed relationally by being heard, seen, and valued by another. Brown says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Just by sharing our stories with a friend who gives us empathy and compassion, we can bring our shame to light and let it go.
Of course, compassion for yourself is also crucial. You can begin to say the things to your inner child that you so desperately needed to hear all those years ago. “You are safe. You matter. You are loved.” Spend a few minutes each day meditating on these phrases. Imagine holding that little you in a great big hug of warmth and acceptance. Notice when you feel shame and offer yourself the compassion you’ve always deserved. Once you shine a light on your pain and meet it with empathy, it begins to heal.
Reducing Shame in Your Child’s Life
In Montessori, the role of a caregiver is to help each child develop inner discipline by teaching them to think about the causes of their actions. Rather than affecting a child’s behavior as result of blind obedience driven by fear or shame, Montessorians strive to teach children why certain behaviors are helpful and necessary and others are not. Young children who cannot yet fully understand cause and effect learn to trust their caregivers and follow their lead because these caregivers create an environment of order and boundaries in which children can grow.
Of course, you cannot control the actions of everyone who comes into contact with your child. He or she may still experience shame outside the home, but what a gift to have the home as a safe haven where they will be free from shame - where they can come to heal.
Try these shame-free discipline tactics:
1. Use concrete language and when-then statements. This helps children identify cause and effect. For example, “When you put your shoes on then we can leave to get ice cream.” “When you pet the cat, pet her gently like this, then she will nuzzle up to you.” “When you clean your room, then your friends can come over.”
2. State the problem without blaming or criticizing. For example, rather than “You forgot to turn in your homework again? Why can’t you ever remember anything?” try “You forgot to turn in your homework. Let’s figure out a way to help you remember next time.”
3. Validate emotions while holding boundaries for behavior. Many children are shamed for having certain emotions that they must then learn to stuff or conceal to be accepted. Those stuffed emotions always cause trouble at some point, though. By accepting and validating your child’s emotions, you will help them feel seen and heard. All emotions are valid as they are part of the human experience. Learning to regulate those emotions so that they don’t dictate your behavior is a key life skill. Begin teaching your child how to regulate emotions early through tools like our Time-In ToolKit.
As your child grows, you can also begin to teach them the same tools you are using to heal your inner child - meditation, self-compassion, mindfulness, affirmations, etc. This will help them to clear out their baggage early so that they don’t have to lug it around for years. By providing a safe haven at home and tools for healing the shame they encounter outside of home, you are greatly increasing their chances for a healthy and happy emotional life.