Shame: A Roadblock to Respectful Parenting

shame hands face.jpgMost prominent among the questions parents ask is a certain “brand” or theme that looks something like this:

“How do I deal with my own anger?”
“How can I be a calmer, more consistent, parent?”
“I know I’m supposed to stay calm and not get flustered, but I always end up yelling–how do I fix that?”
“I know what to do.  I know what I want to do.  I always start out with great intentions, but then things that they do or say just really set me off, and before I know it, I’m feeling frustrated!”

Yeah.  Me too.  We all want to know the magic trick, the one that will turn us into those wonderful online parenting experts, with their mellifluous voices, the ones who don’t ever snap at kids when they’re being rude.

Yeah.  Sure.  Okay.  Let’s all pretend for a minute that those people exist.  (ooh.  ahh.) And now let’s  let go of that idea.  Because it’s an illusion.

And so we search.  We try to find a way, a secret, a tool, a mantra–anything–that someone else can give to us or that we can post on our refrigerators to remind us so that we will be able to be the parents that we want to be.  Does it work?  Sometimes. A  little bit.  And then we fall in.  Again.  And we feel like failures and like we’ll never be as good respectful parents as those mythical people out there in imaginary land.

You wanna put a sign up on your fridge?  Put one up that says “No one is perfect.” or “My parenting guru is a unicorn–she doesn’t really exist.” or “Everybody loses it sometimes.  Apologize, forgive yourself, and move on.”  Much better investment.

We keep looking for the answers.  We even look inside ourselves  Are we triggered by our own childhoods?  By a former relationship?  Oh my god, did we experience a secure attachment as an infant?  Does THAT explain why we have problems with trust and confidence?  Are we getting enough rest?  How’s our self-care?  Surely if I could just get a massage and a few hours away from my kids I wouldn’t be losing my patience.

The one thing that we often don’t get to in those meanderings through who-and-what-to-blame is (drum roll):  Shame.  Yes.  Shame.

Shame is deeply toxic.  It poisons us and our relationships, including with our children.  Shame creates anger, defensiveness, and disconnection, and erodes trust. And it’s seemingly impossible to get rid of.  Maybe that’s why we don’t look at it that often–it just leaves us feeling hopeless.  Fine, so I have shame about that.  I’ve tried to get rid of it, I’ve done all sorts of therapy and healing, but you know, it’s still there.  Shame just never goes away.  So maybe I’m just destined to be this sort of parent. 

I don’t buy it.  I think there’s hope for us yet.

What is shame, anyway? Is it the same thing as guilt?  Is it like embarrassment?   My own working definition is that guilt is a feeling we have about something we have done. Most importantly, it is something we tend to be able to share, i.e. “I feel guilty that I yelled at my child.” Shame is something that lives much deeper, something that we hide, a feeling that the whole of our being is bad or unworthy because of something we have done, i.e. “I am a monster.”  One is feeling.  One is being.

That might not be your definition, or the dictionary definition, or what others mean, of course.  I’m sure we could google the word and get a hundred definitions and perspectives  There’s no need for me to do that for you–hey, if you want to jump in the pool and spend a few hours splashing around in the fun-filled waters of people talking about shame, more power to you.  Been there.  Not in the mood to do it today.  Although.   If you haven’t read or listened to Brene Brown talk about shame, do that.  And forget all the rest of the search.  Well worth your time, that one.  Do it.  Oh, heck, I’ll make it easy for you.  Watch this:


So, in case you didn’t catch her drift, shame goes along with vulnerability.   It’s part of what keeps us from being vulnerable.  It’s part of what protects us from vulnerability. And vulnerability is the only way out of it.

Here’s where I’m going to go out on a limb, and go back to those questions you had (or that I decided you had) up there in the first paragraph.  Why can’t you be calm?  Why can’t you stop yelling?  Why do you always seem to react even though you know better?  Perhaps vulnerability–and a safe place to experience it–is missing from your life.  And perhaps…just perhaps…shame is keeping you from it.  Maybe it’s not just the lack of babysitters or the geographic isolation or the frustrating in-laws or the spouse who isn’t on the same page or your child’s as-yet-undetermined-diagnosis.

So how do we take this on?  We start at the very beginning (a very good place to start)  (sorry, I just can’t help myself with the musical theater references)  (or the parentheticals).  We look for it.  We name it.  We acknowledge it.  We speak it.  We own it.

So listen up.  It’s my turn.  If there is one thing I know for sure, ALL of my worst moments, as a parent, as a partner, as a professional, and as a person in the world, are about shame.  There.  I said it.

And so, because, well, integrity is my thing, and I just told you that to look, name, acknowledge, speak, , and own, a few little example from my life.  Like yesterday.  With my 17 year old daughter.

First, the background.  The big background, which I’m not going to spend a lot of time on here, is that I do not have the healthiest relationship with food.  Emotional eating, sugar issues, blah blah.  You get the idea.  I know what to do, and sometimes I do it, and then I don’t.  Sound familiar?   Interestingly, my teenage daughter–through some sort of unexplainable freak occurrence that I wish I could take credit for because it would make me a kick-ass parent–has none of the issues I have about food.  She–get this–has never overeaten.  Ever.  Oh, no, wait, there was that one time when she was about 12 at a Chinese restaurant in New York City where she discovered that sesame chicken that is made directly by God.  But that’s it.  Really.  NEVER.  I kid you not. She also has NEVER eaten or purchased a full sized candy bar.  Ever.  I don’t get her at all.  It’s amazing.  And I’m envious.  But I’m getting off track.

So I don’t have the healthiest relationship with food.  And sometimes, like anything else, I get a handle on it.  I somehow harness intention and mindfulness, and I set about to eat more consciously.  It always makes me feel fantastic, my health improves, I have more energy, and well, I just feel so good about taking care of myself.  A little more than a month ago, I did it.  Again.  I set about the make the change.  And it worked.  It was really good.  I cooked up a storm, my daughter happily joined me and loved whatever I made (see?).  I felt great.  And then my mother died.

(insert sound of brakes screeching here)

But Robin, those times of extreme stress and grief, those are the most important times of all to be conscious about your eating, to take care of yourself and your body, to nurture yourself and fill your body with things that make it feel strong and healthy and valuable.  I wish you had called me–I could have helped and been of support.  It is so great that you had already started to make that shift, and the death of a parent is so hard, it would be so incredibly valuable to feed yourself well through that transition.

Yeah.  I know.  That’s not what I did.   Remember the sign “No one is perfect?”  Yeah.  That.  And the “forgive yourself and move on” one?  Yeah.  I remembered that.  And I almost reached that one.  But then a friend died (yes, a couple weeks after my mom.)  And then another friend died–a very close friend this time (yes, less than a week after the other friend.)   And I have another very dear friend in hospice.  So, you know, all bets are off.  No one is perfect.

So that’s the background.

Oh. And one more piece of background.  There were months and years where I got angry and yelled at my daughter.  A lot.  A lot more than I would wish, anyway.  Mostly during times of a great deal of stress, all of it unrelated to her, but sadly, she bore the residual effects.  So yeah, stress is another one.  But that’s another post.  In any case, that’s not really true anymore.  I do sometimes still fall into that pit, but mostly, it doesn’t happen very often.  I’ve worked on it, been very conscious, dealt with my stress and stayed conscious about what’s mine and what’s hers.  I’m happy with how that has gone and our lives together are mostly quite peaceful and happy (and funny and musical.)  So there’s that.

And then there was last night.  She had dinner at a friend’s house and came home at about 9.00.  By that time, I was in the throes of, well, a rebelling digestive system, let’s leave it at that.  She got home and she was worried (she worries when I’m not well).  I said it was okay, I just ate really badly  (when I say badly, i mean BADLY) and that I’d be fine after a night of sleep (which I am.)  And she said “What did you eat?”

There it is.  Right there.  It’s an innocent question.

And there I was.


Poof.  One simple question, and I’m gone.

(Let me say that I am so fortunate to have a very insightful, sensitive, compassionate, and forgiving daughter, who recognized this for what it was, and didn’t push it or escalate or pout.  She knows I’m not upset at her.  I still wish I didn’t shout, but at least she knows.  How does she know?  I have repaired.  I have always repaired.  I have talked about it later.  I have apologized.  I have owned that this is my stuff.  I have made it clear that she did not and does not deserve that response, and that sometimes I make mistakes.  I have always done this.  And she has learned.)

I am perfectly capable–and in that moment, I was perfectly capable–of saying what I ate. And I cannot bear the litany, the accounting.  I made poor decisions, I suffered the natural consequences.  I don’t need to punish myself further, nor to be shamed or punished by anyone else for the poor decisions I made.  I did what I did.  To recite a list will increase the shame, and in turn, increase the defensiveness that made me shout in the first place.

STOP.   RE-READ THAT LAST PARAGRAPH.  STEP OUT OF YOURSELF AND THINK ABOUT YOUR CHILD.   “I made poor decisions, I suffered the natural consequences, I don’t need to be shamed or punished by anyone else for the poor decisions I made.  I did what I did.  To recite a list will [just make it worse].”  Remember.  This is as true for your children as it is for you.  “But I have to process it with them, I want to make sure they know that it’s not okay.  They have to know that this is unacceptable.”  They know.  They already know.  Put THAT on your fridge.

Maybe it’s not about food for you–or your child.  It isn’t always food for me, either–this is just an example.  I am “fortunate” to have a full smorgasbord of things that I feel shame about.  Pick a card, any card.  Each of these–every one of them–has nothing at all to do with my child, and yet they are the source of nearly all of my poor parenting moments.   She bears the brunt of my unfinished work.

If any of this rings true for you, it is almost surely not new.  Maybe you used to start fights with your parents–as a distraction–when you did things that you wish you hadn’t done.  Maybe you started to act up in school when a teacher publicly pointed out something you were doing that was unacceptable.  Maybe you started having a hard time getting along with co-workers and became abrasive or impatient in the workplace when you were late on a deadline due to your own procrastination.  Maybe you found yourself arguing with a spouse or a partner to avoid talking about spending too much money or getting into a fender bender.  Anything to avoid vulnerability.  Shame is toxic.

Like all of you, I seek the golden ticket that will make me a better parent–the one my daughter deserves.  It is only in moments in which I remember that that ticket lies not outside of me, but inside, where impatience and defensiveness and old scars reside, that I feel hope that it is possible–because although we cannot change others, we can, indeed, change ourselves.

Parenting is the hardest work.  Not because it’s tiring, not because children are challenging, not because it requires us to sacrifice or give when we have nothing left to give.  Parenting is the hardest work because it requires of us that we grow up.  Parenting is the hardest work because–if we want to do it well–it requires us to be accountable and humble and to do the hard work of being fully responsible for ourselves and healing our own histories and demons.

In my view, respectful parenting simply does not coexist with shame–it is the house guest that has stayed too long, the fish that has gone bad in your refrigerator.  It kills your best intentions–it leaves you saying and doing things that are antithetical not only to what you want, but even who you are.  It is something that you must conquer if you want to actualize who you want to be as a parent–and that is something that can only be done through rigorous honesty and vulnerability.  Only you can decide when you are ready to take that leap–when the cost to you or to your children is too great.

Lucky for us, like everything else that we learn about parenting, it’s also an opportunity.  Over the next week or two, take a few minutes to reflect on the times that your patience wears thin.  What are the tapes or the messages that are playing in your head?   What is the fear and the shame that somehow bubbles up a result of what your child has done or said?  What is it that you feel you can’t say?  What does it say about YOU if your child does not behave in a particular way?  What do you tell yourself about your intentions and actions as a parent?   And most importantly, who do you have in your life that you can confide in?  Even writing it down, confiding in something amorphous like a page, is better than keeping it in.

Tell someone.  Kick it to the curb.  Watch how your relationship with your children improves.   And then come back and tell us about it, k?



Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Want more on the same topic?

Swipe/Drag Left and Right To Browse Related Posts:

Looking For The Next or Previous Article?

You've Found Them -- Read On!