“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.
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’re 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.