Parenting Shame



Shame: canstockphoto24272637a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

The phone was propped on my shoulder as I listened intently while my friend was describing her two-year-old son’s first public temper tantrum.   Her first child had been very compliant and would not have dreamed of calling any attention to herself in public like that.  She said, “I was shocked when I saw him on the floor kicking and screaming over something he didn’t get that he wanted.  I was amazed at how quickly embarrassment flooded me.”  Then the woman behind me in the line smiled and said, “Honey, they all do this.  He will stop eventually.”

As she recounted her story, I felt tears roll down my cheeks even before the sadness hit me. I remembered what it was like when I had a toddler melting down everywhere we went.  I couldn’t recall one time when someone was kind to me like that.  At best people would avoid me. Often people glared at me and mumbled loudly under their breath.  They mumbled things like, “She shouldn’t leave the house if she can’t control her kids,” or “He needs a whipping,” or they would turn to their own child and loudly say, “I am so glad you know how to behave in a store.”   At times, because his behavior was so confusing and chaotic, people would gather around with cell phones ready, trying to determine whether or not they should call someone about this woman with the out-of-control child.  I was shocked by how quickly I was flooded with emotions despite the years that have passed without a public meltdown.  Although today I think about those times with sadness and even tenderness toward both of us, this momma who was struggling so much, and my sweet boy who was struggling even more, in those moments I remember feeling ashamed.

There were times when people, in an attempt to be kind, dismissed the behavior when I tried to explain it to them.  This too made me feel shame.  If every two, three, or four-year-old does this, then why I am so overwhelmed?  What is wrong with me?  When I told people that my son never napped, they said things like, “Oh, I have a bad sleeper too. I am lucky if he takes an hour nap.”  They didn’t hear me.  My son NEVER NAPPED, ever! For years he also slept poorly during the night, many nights as few as four hours.  We were beyond exhausted.

There is a proverb in the Bible (Proverbs 10:1) that says, “A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” This proverb strikes me as so interesting.  Why is it that the author only mentions grief coming to the mother? The author was clearly aware that a mother’s view of herself is connected to how well her children are doing.

It is interesting because the more frequently I speak out publically about parenting shame, the more I realize that every parent experiences shame to some degree. There is enough shame to go around.  Mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their kids, for choosing not to homeschool, for struggling with anger, for beginning the day badly or ending the day badly.  There is no end to parenting shame.   Working mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their children. Stay-at-home moms feel shame for not enjoying the time they do spend with their children.   I think that there is this expectation both from society and from ourselves that we should be able to “fix things”.  Isn’t that a mom’s job, to teach her children how to behave?  Even though most women would rally against that statement, they live as though this is a sacred truth.  This creates a situation where you feel responsible for others’ behaviors even though you can’t control anyone but yourself.   In this post, I am not referring to irresponsible parents who do not provide enough structure, supervision, or nurture for their children.  I am referring to parents who have the tendency to be overly responsible.

Shame is immobilizing.  Shame makes it impossible for us to be present with our children, and it brings about this sense of urgency to our parenting that is always unhealthy.  It makes us focus on the outcome, which we can’t control, instead of the process, which we can. We can only control our own behaviors.   Shame makes us want to isolate ourselves and lash out at those we love.  Here are some things that I have found helpful in dealing with shame as a parent.

Identify Your Own Shame Triggers

The first step to dealing with shame is to recognize it and identify the people you are around, or places you are in, when you get triggered.  Maybe it is your aunt who always raises her eyebrows when your child interrupts her, or the grocery store with the long lines where your child always acts out. Just identifying it accurately can take some of shame’s power away.  Simply recognizing it is sometimes enough to stop the wave of anger that often comes after a person feels shame.  Shame is very different than guilt.  The message of guilt is “I did something wrong”.  The message of shame is “I am wrong” (Dr. Karyn Purvis).  In identifying your triggers, you can also learn to avoid them when possible.

Your Relationship with Your Child is More Important Than Anyone’s Expectations of You or Your Child

Remember the relationships that are long lasting.  Do the right thing for the person with whom you will have a life-long relationship.  Maybe the teacher communicates that she expects you to have a consequence waiting for your child after school.  You experience shame when she tells you what your child did at school, but you know your child has already been punished.  Always pick your child.  You will always have a relationship with your child, and you may or may not remember his/her 1st grade teacher’s name in five years.

 Good Repair Creates Intimacy

Remember that no one does everything right.  There is no parent on earth who gets everything right.  Every parent loses his temper at times, and even shames his child at times.  There is no intimacy in a relationship if there is not restoration.  These relationship ruptures are opportunities to increase our intimacy by making it right with our child.  Whenever there is a rupture in the relationship, make sure that you restore things.  Children are so forgiving even if you can’t physically restore something.  Just saying, “I wish I would have done things differently. I made the wrong choice,” shows a child that you are willing to make it right.  Restoration that is genuine, honest, and vulnerable draws a child even closer to the parent than before the rupture happened.

Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of Yourself

On another note, it is best to avoid thinking about the future which can be very overwhelming for a parent who is feeling immobilized.  Just focus on one day at a time.  What does your child need today? That is a question that even a very overwhelmed parent can answer. On the other hand, a question like, “What does your child need to learn before high school?”  Is completely overwhelming for a parent whose child is struggling in kindergarten.