Avoiding Shame

I remember my professor, Ron Nydam, explaining the difference between shame and guilt.

Shame says, “I am bad. I am worth less than others because of what I have done.”

Guilt says, “I have done bad. I broke the rules or expectations that were set.”

Both guilt and shame are powerful and crummy feelings. Both feelings also have the positive potential to encourage people to do what is right – to avoid further guilt or shame. However, shame tends to have many more negative side affects – low self-esteem, anger, depression, and possibly even suicide.

The reality is that all children, even the really cute ones, get into trouble on a fairly regular basis. If you are a parent, this is not news to you!

As parents, our goal should be to help our children understand what they did wrong (why they are guilty) and to explain the consequences of their actions. Our hope is that the consequences will convince them not to repeat the bad behavior. Our deeper hope is that they will develop an internal set of values so that they will make the right decision in the future because of those values – not just to avoid the consequences.

In dealing with inappropriate behavior, we must be careful not to shame our children. We must communicate that they did something bad, but never communicate that they are bad – or worth less than others.

Here are a few examples of using shame that you should avoid:

– “Why can’t you be more like your sibling!” (Communicating that the sibling is better than the child and, therefore, they feel they are worth less.)

– “You are a naughty boy!” (This is not about what he has done, but about who he is.)

– “You need to work hard to make the volleyball team because all Buursma’s are great volleyball players.” (Its great to have family pride, but what does she understand about herself if she doesn’t make the team.)

– “Your grades are bad because you are too lazy to study like you should!” (A very unhelpful statement if your goal is to motivate him to study.)

I’m not trying to say that a normal child can’t handle hearing his parents occasionally throw a shame-filled statement his way. As parents, most of us occasionally choose our words carelessly. The challenge is to work to minimize your use of shame. While your child may have done something pretty awful, you may need to remind yourself that they are still your same great kid. Be sure you protect their sense of self-worth no matter how frustrated you are.

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