When your child is making poor choices and acting out, it’s easy to let shame eat you up inside. You wonder, “Where have I gone wrong as a parent? Why is he behaving this way?” And, “What must other people be thinking?” The danger here is that these feelings can create a negative cycle. When you operate out of fear and shame—rather than out of clear objectivity and care for your child—not only will you feel awful, you can also become ineffective as a parent. If this sounds familiar (as it does for so many of us) let’s see what you can do to break the cycle.
Shame: Lurking below the Surface
When we’re happy, we laugh or feel a sense of wellbeing. When we’re angry or afraid, we get a jolt of adrenalin. But shame doesn’t always make itself known—rather, this destructive emotion tends to swim under the surface. It can be described as that nightmarish feeling that makes you feel as if each one of your flaws (or failings as a parent) is on display for all to see. When we’re feeling this way, we feel blamed and judged by others—even if they’re only in our imagination—and we want to crawl into a hole and disappear from sight.
It’s important to note that shame is different from guilt. Guilt is what we feel when we don’t behave in ways that align with our basic beliefs and values. This might include things like gossiping or betraying a loved one’s trust. Shame, on the other hand, is not usually connected to a behavior, but rather to who we believe we really are. We can feel shame when we feel incompetent, insecure, too fat, or somehow unlovable. Shame is about being, not about behaving—two very different things.
Here’s the rub: You can feel shame not only about your own flaws, but about other people’s behaviors—and these other people are usually those closest to you, like your child or spouse. I call this “reflected shame.” Here’s an example. Let’s imagine your teen daughter is in trouble all the time. She’s gotten suspensions from school, engages in drug and alcohol use, and is openly rude and disrespectful of you and other adults in her life. You see other parents trying to keep their kids away from her because of her reputation as a troublemaker. When you walk through town, you find yourself keeping your head down and your eyes turned away from people who might know you are the mother of that “delinquent girl.” You rarely socialize and find yourself going out less and less often. As a result, you feel isolated and as if you are “living in a little prison” as James Lehman says about the lives of many parents of acting-out kids. You behave this way as if your daughter’s shame is fused into you; it’s as if shame from the outside is being spilled onto you.
It’s hard to know where you end and your child begins. Shame, whether your own or from others, drives the deep fear of not being fundamentally “good enough” and not worthy of being loved.
If you were the mother of the daughter that I just described, you would feel so many painful emotions besides shame: you would be worried and afraid that your child is behaving in such destructive ways and you might be angry at her for making you look bad. You might fear for her future and have some guilt for past mistakes you might have made as a parent. All these emotions would get in the way of your being able to approach your daughter’s dilemmas in a calm, thoughtful way that could help her solve them. In addition, shaming messages to parents in our culture are everywhere and it’s hard for any parent to not to absorb them. But even if we realize this, do we stop, pause and think before we judge and ask ourselves if we agree with our own beliefs? Do we consciously agree that we are supposed to be there to serve our kids whenever and however they need us, for example? That we should be able to control every move they make? Most of the time we don’t, but we just continue reacting to these messages, a constant kneejerk dance that leaves us filling miserable, drained, and “not good enough.”
But here’s the deal: our child’s behavior is not a mirror reflecting a report card back to us of how we did as a parent. A parent’s job is to take responsibility for his or her own actions. You cannot possibly be responsible for your child’s choices; you can influence them, but ultimately you can’t control them. We can feel shame and blame ourselves so easily if we don’t think clearly about what we believe or if our beliefs even make sense to us. Sometimes it’s not even possible to realistically meet the expectations society has set for us. If your child has ADHD, for example, (or even if he doesn’t!) getting him sit still and behave perfectly all the time is not going to be realistic.
It’s also important to understand that shame creates more shame. The more we hide from it and keep it in the dark, the bigger it will grow. If you react to your child’s inappropriate or out-of-control behavior by avoiding social interactions (as many parents do), the more your anxiety will grow. You might be assuming that everyone on the street or in your apartment building is talking about the latest escapade that happened with your child. Many of us eventually start feeling “paranoid,” as if all eyes are on our family. And truth be told, people might be judging you—it’s what humans do. But remember, you can’t control what other people think about you—you can only control how you think about yourself and how you respond to them.
Here are 8 things you can do when you’re trapped in the shame cycle as a parent and are ready to step out of it.
Recognize the emotion of shame. It’s hard to detect shame even though we are often driven by it without knowing it’s there. Some clues that it’s lurking under the surface include behaviors like hiding, avoiding and lots of secrecy. Being overly judgmental of yourself and others is another clue that shame is not far away.
When you are harshly judging yourself or others, stop. Stop long enough to ask yourself if what you are blaming and shaming yourself for are beliefs that you have swallowed whole from our culture, or if you truly agree with them and choose to own them. Ask yourself, “Do I really agree that it’s possible and reasonable for me to make sure my child never makes a poor choice in his life? Do I really think that it is possible for me to assure my child will always think the way I think he should?” If the answer is no, then stop shaming yourself. You can even say, “I am asking myself to do something that I don’t agree with and know is not possible. And that doesn’t make sense.”
Check yourself. Look closely at yourself and your own history to know why you are feeling so much shame and disappointment about your child’s behavior. If there’s an issue that’s echoing something you went through in the past and haven’t yet come to terms with, are you still shaming yourself now? Are you inadvertently putting your own deep sense of your flaws onto your child? Usually, if we are willing to look closely, honestly at a situation, instead of over-focusing on our kids, our unresolved situations will rise to the top. If your child does something horrendous like destroying your neighbor’s property or stealing something, remind yourself, “It’s not me, it’s my child. Now how can I be helpful and useful to her in this situation? What’s the big picture here, and what lesson do I want to make sure she learns?”
Remind yourself what you are responsible for. Remind yourself that you are only responsible for your own behavior and to be the best parent, mate, friend, daughter that you can be. You need to be there for your child in good or bad times, get help when necessary, and be a helpful guide. Most importantly, simply keep showing up.
Give up “magical thinking.” Let go of the magical thinking that says, “If I could just be the perfect parent, I could somehow determine my child’s behavior and feelings.” That much control over another person is simply not possible. When you can give up that illusion and realistically know what is possible, you will start to feel less shame—and stop blaming yourself. You will also be more able to talk to other parents and see that you’re not alone in how you think and feel.
Hold your head high. It might sound corny, but when you go out in public, hold your head high and make eye contact. Although you might feel terrible shame over your child’s behavior, you know it’s not you who did the drugs, shoplifted, bullied someone or made other destructive choices. You are not your child; the umbilical cord was cut a long time ago. Your slogan might have to be, “I am not my child and my child is not me.”
Judgment from others: When others judge you or your child, remind yourself that you cannot control how others see you—but you can control how you look at yourself and others. People will judge you less if you stop hiding out. By letting them know you, they will be less likely to blame you. The bottom line is that you have to be willing to be seen. If they still judge you, remind yourself of the following: “I can’t control how others view me. I can only control how I view myself and how I respond to them.”
Talk to nonjudgmental people who you can trust. The solution to decreasing your shame is actually counterintuitive: It is to approach people and start having contact with the outside world again. Talk to people who you have pretty good reason to think you can trust. Try sharing some of your struggles. Let them know what you’re going through so that their imaginations don’t run wild. You never know, they might be going through the same thing—or have a niece, nephew or acquaintance who is.
As you begin to talk to others openly, your shame will diminish because you will recognize that what you believe to be most shameful is actually most human. And when you feel more human and are able to let go of some of the shame you feel, you’ll be able to approach your child from a thoughtful place, not a highly emotional one. Only then can you begin to have a clear relationship with him, see him more clearly and be able to help him get on track. From that place you will be able to be a much more effective parent—which will lead to less shame about being an inadequate one.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.