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Understanding the 7 Ways Our Kids Experience Toxic Shame

6 min read
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What Is Toxic Shame?

Shame has its roots in punishment. Punishment was the default method for handling “misbehaviour” in previous generations.

If we grew up with shame, it’s important to recognize what it is and do our own work to stop the cycle.

The definition of Toxic Shame, according to webMD:

Toxic shame is a feeling that you’re worthless. It happens when other people treat you poorly and you turn that treatment into a belief about yourself. You’re most vulnerable to this type of poor treatment during childhood or as a teen. When you feel toxic shame, you see yourself as useless or, at best, not as good as others.

Toxic shame can develop from negative peer interactions, negative parent-child interactions, negative coach/teacher/adult/extended family/sibling interactions.

toxic shame

Recognizing the Cycle of Toxic Shame and How It’s Passed On

①  Punishment

Quote from Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline:

“Where did parents get the crazy idea that in order to make children behave, parents should make them feel shame, humiliation, or even pain?”

This sums up the meaning of punishment.  It’s intended to “teach” but by causing emotional or physical pain.  It may work in the short-term but in the long-term it leads to a child internalizing negative self-beliefs.

As this was the primary discipline method in previous generations, many parents repeat this pattern as they’re not sure how to set limits differently.  (For previous blogs on setting limits and logical consequences: https://www.sharonselby.com/discipline/setting-limits-with-a-strong-willed-child and 

② Humiliation

When you humiliate someone you point out their mistakes in front of others and cause them to feel extremely embarrassed.

This may take the appearance of a joke, but it is hurtful and damaging.

It can also happen because the parent/adult feels embarrassed by their child’s appearance or actions and so they point it out in front of others to deflect their own embarrassment.

It’s also a way to put others down to put themselves up.

When one makes jokes at the expense of others, especially our kids, this causes long-term emotional damage and toxic shame.

Sadly, this can still happen in classrooms:  “(Teacher knocks on classroom wall). Hello Johnny, anyone in there?”

③ Making Assumptions

An example of making a shame-based assumption:  “You can’t find your hoodie?  You probably left it at the soccer field again! You’re always losing your stuff.

When in reality, a sibling may have borrowed it without asking or someone else put it in the washing machine…

Another example: “You failed your test.  I’m not surprised. That’s because you didn’t study enough.  If you focussed more on your school work and less on your phone, you wouldn’t fail your tests.”

In reality, the child may have studied and it may have been a particularly difficult unit.  On the other hand, the child may not have studied and may have spent too much time on their phone, but shaming them will only shut them down and cause harm.  It would be better to ask questions, and express concern versus shaming.

④ Judgement

This one can be very subtle and unintentional but can still cause internal shame, such as when a parent imitates a child in a “joking” way.  “Look at you dragging your feet to the dinner table.” (while physically imitating).

Judgement can also be very direct.  “You’re going to order dessert?  Don’t you think you should save that for another day when you’ve done some exercise.” or “You’re going to wear that outfit?  Are you trying to look like a whore?”

Of course a parent needs to express their concerns if a teen is going out in very revealing clothing, but it’s the delivery of the message that is essential.  This concern can be conveyed without shaming.  For example,  “Honey, I know the fashion is to wear really low-cut see-through tops but I find it concerning and we need to talk about this.”

Criticism is part of judgement.  For example, not talking to your child after their hockey game because you’re displeased with their performance.  Pointing out all their mistakes. “What’s wrong with you?!” Telling them that they made a fool of themselves.  All these actions showing disapproval create shame.

These parents have unrealistic expectations for their child, which result in the child never feeling “good enough” because they can never meet their parents’ too high expectations.  This often results from the parents own upbringing:

“If your habitual shame dates back to childhood, it is very likely that it is not your shame. It is likely that your mother or father or grandparents instilled in you their own sense of shame about not measuring up, and then made it so familiar to you that you feel as though it is yours. It is an unfortunate fact that it’s possible for us to learn shame. Just as you can make a cat or dog feel shameful if you yell at it each time it jumps on the couch, you can make a human feel shame if they don’t live up to some culturally imposed standard which you remind them of constantly.”

― Marisa Peer, I Am Enough: Mark Your Mirror And Change Your Life

⑤ Emotionally Distant Parenting

Abuse, neglect or lack of attunement to a child’s emotional and/or physical needs causes toxic shame.

⑥ Negative Labels

“You’re always so lazy”  “You never pick up after yourself.” “You’re an idiot.”  “You’re so difficult”.

When we’re frustrated, we need to identify the behaviour as frustrating not the actual child.

⑦ Swearing

Obviously swearing directly at your child is very harmful and shaming.  Eg.  “You fu_ _ er!”  Very hurtful.

But also swearing in their presence, connected to their frustrating behaviour:  “Fu_ _!” This still stings a lot.   The child knows it’s directed at them even if you didn’t say “You” before it.

As Marisa Peer (UK therapist and author) says:

“When we’re young, we form our beliefs and then our beliefs form us.”

Awareness creates action.  I hope that this article raises awareness about the many kinds of shame so we can be more mindful in heated moments and not resort to shaming.  If we have said hurtful words, we need to go back and repair the damage.


PS. The opposite of feeling shame is feeling self-empowered. Registration is now open for my next set of groups aimed to resource your child with life skills to build resilience. These Self-Empowerment groups are for kids ages 7-9 years and 10-12 years. You can read more about them and register here.

Sharon Selby, MA, is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, with over 20 years’ experience counseling children and families.  She is the author of the children’s book, Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave, where you can find more information about the strategies recommended in this article.  To receive her free ebook: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Your Child is Anxious, go to www.SharonSelby.com/free

Read more from Sharon here.

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