Shame on You

“What are you thinking? Haven’t we talked about this before?”

My seven-year-old son looked down at the food that had just spilled on the kitchen floor.

He stood statue-still, as children often do after an accident. The words and tone I’d used were having their impact. He braced himself to fight the tears, and prepared to clean things up.

And when I thought about it later, I realized the worst moment wasn’t the food hitting the floor. The worst moment was seeing his face hiding the shame and anguish he was feeling. It was in knowing I’d been responsible for helping him “shove down” big feelings too painful to deal with.

The truth was difficult.

I was teaching my son to feel shame.

How does all of this happen? How is it that our parenting brings out the “worst” in us?

The dynamics of shame are fairly simple. They are often at the heart of toxic relations between parents and children. When we feel unable to change the behavior of our children, we may have a rush of feelings that include frustration, humiliation, and anger. Our own sense of being defective may accompany the sense of shame, and may be related to our history as a child.

As children, there were times when we felt misunderstood and mistreated. The feelings of shame that were generated from those times produced defense mechanisms that protected us from having to experience those painful moments again.

When we become parents, we are constantly reminded of past shame-filled experiences in our interactions with our children. The shame comes rushing back in an avalanche of feelings and defenses.

When we’re “in” our own shame, everything is distorted. When our children make mistakes, they’re our mistakes. When they appear defective, we feel defective. We become overly concerned about other people’s opinions, and about what’s right and wrong.

And in this avalanche of shame, we lose sight of the most important thing of all—the needs of our children.

Here are some steps to limit or avoid the impact of shame on your family:

  • Look at your own history of shame, and how it’s triggered by your children. Try to find the irrational thoughts and messages that are getting you into trouble. Get to know these triggers well, and be prepared for them.
  • Get to know your child’s reaction to shame, and how quickly they can reconnect with you after a shaming episode. Never forget that your child wants to be in a positive, loving relationship with you. The sooner you can reconnect after a shaming episode, the better.
  • Tell your children that shaming messages happen, and that most parents (and most kids) say irrational things and act in irrational ways at times. This will help them to process what’s happened to them.
  • Be the first one to initiate better feelings between you and your child after a shaming episode. If it takes awhile for your child to recover, be patient with the process, but don’t stop trying to reconnect.
  • Don’t beat yourself up after you shame your child. This only gets you caught up in the same cycle of shame that you unleashed on your child. Practice the art of being kind and gentle with yourself.

My son finished cleaning up the food, and sat back down at the table with a long look on his face. He didn’t look ready to reconnect with his Dad anytime soon.

“Thanks for cleaning up, buddy. If you’re done eating, you can wrestle this big, mean daddy to the ground in the family room.”

After shaking his head, a corner of his mouth curled up. Seconds later, we were doing battle on the family room floor.

This shaming episode was over, and the recovery was rapid. But the expression of shame does a great deal of damage to our kids, and it’s ready to rush forward in a heartbeat.

Learning more about your own legacy of shame can be the first step towards lessening the frequency of these unconscious reactions. All it takes is a willingness to visit a difficult part of your past, and a determination to leave a better legacy for your own family.

We didn’t deserve shame when we were kids.

Our kids don’t, either.

© 2008 Mark Brandenburg

Other Father Issues, Books, Resources

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To this day I can remember my father's voice, singing over me in the stillness of the night. - Carl G. Jung

Mark has a Masters degree in counseling psychology and has been a counselor, business consultant, sports counselor, and a certified life and business coach. He has worked with individuals, teams, and businesses to improve their performance for over 20 years. Prior to life and business coaching Mark was a world-ranked professional tennis player and has coached other world-ranked athletes. He has helped hundreds of individuals to implement his coaching techniques. Mark specializes in coaching men to balance their lives and to improve the important relationships in their lives. He is the author of the popular e-books, 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers , and Fix Your Wife in 30 Days or Less (And Improve Yourself at the Same Time ). Mark is also the publisher of the “Dads Don’t Fix your Kids” ezine for fathers. To sign up, go to or E-Mail

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