As the first day of school looms and parents everywhere rejoice, it’s important to remember that while it’s often an exciting time and a fresh start, back-to-school can be a peak time for shame.
Shame is not a feeling limited to adults. It’s something that our kids face, too, and though they might not be able to put a name to the feeling, back-to-school season can be a minefield for kids and shame.
With the prevalence of mental health disorders on the rise in American children ages 3 through 17, we, as parents, should always be on guard when it comes to our children and their feelings. When it comes to shame, we can help our kids identify and name shame when it rears its ugly head. Here are a few things we can look for and some steps we can take in order to help our children get through shame attacks, if and when they strike.
The first thing to look out for is self-depreciation. When I’m feeling shame, it’s my go-to, and I have noticed that it’s my 7-year-old’s as well.
"I’m the worst."
"Gosh, how could I be so stupid?"
"I’m just a bad kid."
"I will never be able to figure this out/get this right/get invited to..."
Those comments may seem like simple exaggerations, but they are not. Shame wants you to believe those things are true. It’s not simply that you made a mistake or forgot how to do a math problem. You can fix a mistake or relearn a math equation. Shame wants your child to believe that the reason they did those things is because, at your child’s core, they are bad, they are dumb, they are worthless. That maybe they can fix that mistake, but even fixing that mistake won’t fix them.
At our house, we try to call out that type of talk immediately. A lot of times, you may not even realize you’re speaking it out, so having the entire family on alert is helpful. When someone in our house says, “I’m the worst,” another family member will reply, "No, you are not; that is just your Awfulizer (what we call shame) talking. You are not the worst; you just made a mistake." It may seem silly, but there can be a feeling of relief in hearing someone deny the idea that you are bad.
The second thing to look out for is a pattern of reaction. We need to remember that we all react to shame in different ways. When at my lowest point, I focus on pleasing everyone. My needs do not matter; I must make everyone else happy, and when everyone likes me, I will feel better. One of my kids completely withdraws when they are feeling shame. Their instinct is to quit and hide. It’s hard for them to have anyone even look at them when they are feeling their lowest. Another of my kids tries to out-shame their shame. If they are feeling bad about themselves, then everyone else in the room will, too.
None of these reactions look alike, and some are easier to respond to with compassion than others, but they are all reactions to feeling shame. As a parent, it’s important to pay attention and recognize how your child reacts to shame so that you can be ready to spring into action.
While I sadly do not have a quick "cure" to dissipate shame mid-attack, I do know that these responses, while instinctive, are not effective. When my children or myself start to spiral into one of these reactions, I have found the best antidote is patience and talking.
What does this look like? It may mean sitting on the edge of my kid’s bed, simply waiting for them to feel secure enough to poke their head out of their covers. It may mean waiting on the other side of a slammed door, helping my child breathe through their anger outburst. Or it may mean forcing myself to lower my hand from volunteering from another project. And while it may look different from child to child, it always involves me being present and knowing that they may not be able to talk right away about the shame that’s bothering them.
But the talking is key. Your child needs to know there is a safe space to talk about their feelings and insecurities. They may not have all the words to explain it, but knowing they can figure it out with you is huge. Shame grows in silence, making you feel more and more isolated the longer it goes unaddressed. Reach out to your child and let them know that they’re not the only ones who have these feelings or think these thoughts; knowing they’re not alone will help to release the hold that shame may have on them.
These are just a few of our family’s strategies to protect against and address shame. Sadly, there is no way to avoid shame or a quick fix for it. It is a slow and steady process, one we must repeat time and again. But by working together as a family, I believe we are setting our kids up to be more shame resilient and ensuring much more confident futures.
Let’s be vigilant to call out shame when we see it, giving our kids and our families the tools to stop shame in its tracks this school year.