The secret cost of shame (117 KB)

A five month old baby is lying in his mother’s arms. He is close to sleep, then wakes and begins to grizzle. His mother tells him that he should stop being a naughty boy, and that she will be cross with him if he doesn’t sleep.

An 18 month-old child is take n to a restaurant with her father and uncle. Her father goes to the bar, leaving the child with the uncle at the table. The child gets down from the table to follow her father. She is grabbed by her uncle and told that she is a bad child, and to stay in he r chair. She looks around worriedly for her father.

At an adult’s birthday party a six year old is awake long past his bedtime. He is running around the hall with the helium- filled balloons. His father yells at him to leave the balloons alone, and tells him to stop being a trouble-maker.

What did these children learn from these experiences? Many would say that the adults’ responses were necessary to teach the child the difference between right and wrong: between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Verbal punishment is common in almost every home and school. It relies on shame as the deterrent, in the same way that corporal punishment relies on pain. Shaming is one of the most common methods used to regulate children’s behaviour. But what if shaming our children is harming our children? Could it be that repeated verbal punishment leaves children with an enduring sense of themselves as inherently ‘bad’? If so, what can we do differently

What is ‘shame’?
Shame is designed to cause children to curtail behaviour through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. It involves a comment – direct or indirect – about what the child is. Shaming operates by giving children a negative image about their selves – rather than about the impact of their behaviour.

What does Shaming look and sound like?
Shaming makes the child wrong for feeling, wanting or needing something. It can take many forms, here are some everyday examples: The put-down: ‘you naughty boy!’, ‘you’re acting like a spoilt child!’, ‘you selfish brat!’, ‘you cry-baby!’. Moralising: ‘good little boys don’t act that way’, ‘you’ve been a bad little girl’. The age-based expectation: ‘grow up!’, ‘stop acting like a baby!’, ‘big boys don’t cry’, The gender-based expectation: ‘toughen-up!’, ‘don’t be a sissy!’, The competency-based expectation: ‘You’re hopeless!’. The comparison: ‘Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?’, ‘None of the other kids are acting like you are’.

How common is shaming?
Shaming is very common, and is considered by many to be acceptable. Shaming is not restricted to ‘abusive’ families, in fact it occurs in the ‘nicest’ of family and school environments. A recent study of Canadian schoolchildren, for instance, found that only 4% had not been the targets of their parents’ shaming; including “rejecting, demeaning, terrorising, criticising (destructively), or insulting statements”.

As parents we tend to resort to shaming when we feel overwhelmed, irritated or frustrated, and we feel the need to control our children. Until very recently little consideration has been given to its harmful effects.

Shame: a new frontier of psychological study
The use of corporal punishment against children has been hotly debated, and under increasing negative scrutiny in recent years. More and more nations legislate against it, schools ban it, international organisations devoted to its elimination are proliferating, and research psychologists have amassed mountains of evidence of its long-term damaging effects. In the meantime, the issue of ‘shaming’ as punishment has been largely overlooked. Only recently have psychologists begun to discover that shaming has serious repercussions.

Daniel Goldman (author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’) says that we are now discovering the role that shame plays in relationship difficulties and violent behaviour. There is a new effort by psychologists to study shame, how it is acquired, and lastly, how it affects a person’s relationships and functioning in society. The study of this previously ‘ignored emotion’ is such a new frontier because it is the most difficult emotion to detect in others. Dr Paul Eckman, from the University of California, says that shame is the most private of emotions, and that humans have yet to evolve a facial expression that clearly communicates it. Is this why we might not see when our children are suffering from this secret emotion?

Is there a place for shame?
It’s not that shame is always undesirable, but that shaming is used too much, and used inappropriately. In his book ‘Healing The Shame That Binds You’ theologian and psychotherapist John Bradshaw suggests that ‘healthy shame’ comes from being clearly shown the impact that our actions have on our relationships – it doesn’t come from being called names like ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’. Shame can have a healthy role for those who are old enough to be fully responsible for their actions. For instance, teenage or adult offenders cannot be rehabilitated unless they feel genuine shame for their offences.

How shame is acquired
No-one is born ashamed. It is a learned, self-conscious emotion, which starts at roughly two years of age with the advent of language and self- image. Although humans are born with a capacity for shame, the propensity to become ashamed in specific situations is learned. This means that wherever there is shame, there has been a shamer. We learn to be ashamed of ourselves because someone of significance in our lives put us to shame. Shaming messages are more powerful when they come from those we are closest to, from people we love, admire or look up to. That is why parents’ use of shaming can have the deepest effects on children. However, shaming messages from teachers, older siblings and peers can also injure children’s self-image. Since children are more vulnerable and impressionable than adults, shaming messages received in childhood are significantly more difficult to erase.

Messages of shame are mostly verbal, but there can be great shaming power in a look of disdain, contempt, or disgust.

Why is shaming so common?
Shaming acts as a pressure valve to relieve parental frustration. Shaming is anger-release for the parent, it makes the shamer feel better – if only momentarily. When made to feel unworthy, children often work extra hard to please their parents. This makes the parent think that the shaming has ‘worked’. But has it?

So, What is Wrong with Shaming?

The Damaging Effects of Shame
To understand the damage wrought by shame, we need to look deeper than the goal of ‘good’ behaviour. If we think that verbal punishment has ‘worked’ because it changed what the child is doing, then we have dangerously limited our view of the child to the behaviours that we can see. It is all too easy to overlook the inner world of children; the emotions that underlie their behaviour, and the suffering caused by shame. It is also easy to miss what the child does once out of range of the shame