By Kobe Campbell
As a mother and trauma therapist, I can sniff out social trauma from a mile away. Mostly because my everyday work consists of being with people for months, sometimes years, as they unlearn and unravel the mistruths that were spoken about them when they were children. And yet, I am seeing it right in front of my eyes with my own son, too.
When my son Levi is excited or upset, he feels and expresses at 100 percent, a mirrored trait of mine. My husband and I have found ourselves jaw to the floor as others have flippantly spoke about our child’s identity in correlation to how conveniently he acts in social situations - right in front of him nonetheless.
Anytime our son is loud, boisterous, and “inconvenient” to the adults around him, he is labeled “‘bad” as if something is wrong with him. Yet if he is quiet, reserved, and withdrawn, then he is labeled a “good” and pleasant little boy. I find this alarming and hazardous.
When we affirm a child's identity based on how others perceive them, we send them down a path of cultural codependency, essentially saying, “as long as the people around you approve of you, you’re good and worth loving! And if they disagree with how you express yourself, who you are is bad and deserving of no love at all.”
How terrifying is that?
Our job is to teach our children that they are always deserving of love, no matter what they do.
Our responsibility to teach children that they always deserve access to love doesn’t alleviate our responsibility to teach them appropriate behavior, but we must keep in mind that kids are still learning what “appropriate” means.
When we shame a child by calling them “bad” when they can’t sit through a long ceremony, church service, or prolonged event, or other like situations, neurological pathways of shame and self-loathing develop. When this happens, we encourage children to perform in a way that is most validated by others, rather than do the courageous work of being themselves. It’s easy to make the mistake of expecting children to ace these social “quizzes” in life, but we forget they’re still just learning how to identify letters and numbers, and the part of the brain responsible for these social and emotional skills is early in formation.
The balance between teaching our child what is appropriate and allowing them to be a kid requires understanding and advocacy.
Understanding involves educating yourself on what your child can and can’t handle developmentally. For instance, the average uninterrupted attention span for a child that’s 25-36 months (around my son’s age) is five to eight minutes. Though I’ve seen him give attention to TV shows, toys, and books for longer than that range, I don’t expect him to go much longer than eight minutes with absolute full attention in a new and unfamiliar environment.
This is where advocating comes in. I come prepared to step out of events and ceremonies with age-appropriate toys like Generation Mindful’s coloring resources from the Time-In ToolKit and his SnuggleBuddies plush toy that my son affectionately calls “Color Bear,” books, and snacks, and pull them out if he begins to disrupt events for others. I make sure to communicate that stepping away is an opportunity to connect and play with mommy rather than a punitive time-out for acting like a kid (which, by the way, he is).
Advocating for my child also looks like correcting the shaming narratives that others may unintentionally speak about him. I once had a family member ask if he was being a “good boy” that day. I took the opportunity to share with them, in front of my son, that he is always good and, though he may face some challenges listening and following directions throughout the day, those don’t define him. On hearing this, my son gave me a kiss and ran off to play. I’m not sure he understood every word shared, but something tells me he knew his mommy came to his defense, and it fosters a positive internal narrative for him long-term.
Understanding and advocacy are important because, while we may be parents, we’re also human. When we hear things like “ Why is your kid so bad?” or “Why isn’t he normal like other kids?” there’s a part of us that will inevitably think, “Is my kid bad? Is something wrong with him?” If you’ve had those thoughts, you’re not alone. I know because I’ve been there. The education I’ve invested in Generation Mindful’s Positive Parenting Course has helped me meet my shame with compassion and the truth that there is no such thing as a bad kid, just a kid that’s learning and growing.
Simple boundary-setting sets the tone for how safe our child feels around us as they witness what we allow and disallow when it comes to how people (even people we love) speak to and treat them. We are the gatekeepers of our children’s experiences. When we encourage appropriate play and kindly call-out shaming language, we protect them from the trauma of persistent shame and invite them into love and acceptance of themselves.
Kobe Campbell is a Charlotte-based mom of two, trauma-therapist and wellness podcaster.