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  • Shanna Donhauser

Parent Question: How can I help my child when she feels ashamed?

My child can be so impulsive. When she's overwhelmed and angry or frustrated, she can't help ripping or breaking things or hitting her little brother. Sometimes I can stop her, but sometimes she's too quick, or I'm not there to see it happen. Usually, once she's calm, she feels sad and disappointed about what happened and her response. I can tell she feels ashamed and she just shuts down. What can I do to help her?

Brene Brown writes about shame vs. guilt, noting that while guilt helps us learn how to correct from mistakes, shame results in feeling unworthy [1]. When shame leads to feeling inherently unloveable and flawed, young children retreat into themselves and become more explosive or depressed [2]. On the other hand, guilt, which develops in early childhood, leads to a healthy development of self and to moral development [3].

We all know the feeling of shame. Shame may visit us occasionally in our lives, or live with us, tormenting our daily interactions and polluting our relationships. In either case, we know the feeling, and as a parent, you are responsible for helping to guide and shape the emotional foundation of your child's sense of self. Support your child through the development of guilt and teach them how to be in relationships. Be mindful about shame and how it might shape your child's sense of self. Shame disconnects, guilt repairs. Children learn all this through their relationship with you, and the way you model love and connection with others.

So what can we do?

1. Ground yourself in the value of the distinction between guilt and shame. We want our children to feel guilty when they have hurt someone else. Guilt serves as a teacher to children (and adults) who need guidance in repairing relationships. Guilt tells us, "Hey, you made a mistake. Now you feel bad. Let's do something about that". Shame buries itself in our hearts, whispering, "You did that bad thing because you're a bad person. You don't deserve to be loved and forgiven".

2. Help your child calm down. When trapped between sibling needs, many parents rush to the aid of the identified victim. The injured sibling, the one crying over a broken toy or art project. They need comfort, but so does the sibling who hit their brother, or broke the toy. When you feel torn, offer comfort to the injured sibling, make sure they are not badly hurt, and quickly move to support the other child.

So many parents protest this suggestion saying, "I don't want to encourage bad behavior."

I understand the logic and argue that it's flawed.

When you give a child who has misbehaves attention, you're signaling that what they have done is serious. You enforce an important boundary by noticing, drawing attention to, and talking about the behavior and action that was unacceptable. You do this with kindness, by offering comfort, unconditional love, and support.

3. Reframe the incident. Help your child feel connected and loved by reframing what happened. 'Reframing' simply means changing the perspective. If we use the hypothetical example of a child hitting their sibling, we might try the following reframe:

You felt so upset. I didn't get to see what happened because I was washing the dishes, but I can see that something upset you, and then you hit your brother. Now you feel sad and upset. Upset from before, and sad because you hit your brother. I know you love him and you don't want to hurt him, even though you hit him. That sad feeling tells you something important. It says, "Let's fix this. How can I show him I'm sorry?". What can we do?

4. Partner with your child so they feel supported. By asking, "What can we do?" you show your intention to be on the same team. Together, you can carry the burden of guilt and find a way to resolve the problem and reconnect. Maybe, you can help fix the broken toy. Maybe, you can hold her hand when she practices vulnerability and sincerely apologizes. Children will offer their own suggestions and tell you what to do to help them feel supported.

Researchers study the impacts of shame on obesity [4], social relationships [5], addiction [6] and depression [7]. Your thoughtfulness about shame shows how much you love your child, and how you support her development of healthy self-esteem.

Hopefully, this information serves to strengthen your own values, guide your gentle intervention, and support your relationship.

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