Shame isn’t always intentional either. Many times we are using shame to control our child without really intending to do so.
Even the most intentional parents unintentionally shame their children. Shame happens when we focus on who the child is versus what they have done. When we say things like “that isn’t very nice!” or “you are being mean” or we label them as “bossy” or “aggressive”. Shame builds up inside and becomes internalized.
Some amount of shame is actually good. It keeps us from doing something we know we might regret. It helps us make responsible decisions and learn from our behavior. It helps us develop a conscience. Too much shame teaches children that they are not OK. That there is something wrong with them. That they need to do whatever they can to please those around them in order to be loved and accepted. Ultimately, it teaches them that they aren’t good enough as they are.
Shame sometimes seems like it is “working”. The child is told they are bad, they feel that they are bad, they stop doing whatever it is that makes them feel bad (though they still believe that they are bad). OR the opposite occurs, the child is told they are bad, they feel they are bad, there is nothing they can do about it so they continue to be bad since that is what they are, after all. Bad.
Don’t push your sister, it’s not very nice! The child who doesn’t understand their uncontrollable urge to push their sibling then hears “well if I want to push my sister for taking my toys, I must not be a very nice person anyway”. So, the pushing continues.
It might seem like our words can’t impact a person this much, but they can and they definitely do. A child is born with no self-concept whatsoever. As a young baby they see themselves only as an extension of their parent. As they grow older they start to realize they are their own person, but they look to their parents to tell them what kind of person they are, and what kind of person they can become.
When they are told they are “naughty”, “bad”, “bratty”, “sassy”, “annoying” or “mean” that is all they know about themselves, so they believe it.
Some children will hear these words and they will try their very hardest to live up to the expectations that their caregivers have set for them. They want to be a “good boy” or a “good girl”. So they spend their whole life trying to live up to everyone’s expectations. Never really feeling “good” enough, because who is perfect? This causes anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other psychological concerns.
Shame is sometimes more subtle and less intentional. When you tell a child to "stop crying", "be a big boy" or insist they are "OK" when they clearly are not you are subtly shaming them simply for having feelings. How does it feel when someone criticizes your feelings about something? Does it make you feel good about yourself when they insist that it's "not a big deal"? Especially, when to you it feels like it is a big deal.
The problem with shame is it creates a false sense of reality in our minds. We believe there is something wrong with us, with how we feel, and because of this we don't believe that we are good enough as we are. So, we put on a face and try to be the person we think we are supposed to be. The person we think people around us want us to be. We want to fit in, we want to be accepted. We want to live up to those expectations we never could live up to when we were children.
Adults raised with subtle (and in some cases not so subtle) shame as a form of discipline grow into not so confident fragile adults who can't handle any form of criticism. Anxiety and depression run rampant because people are lacking confidence and coping mechanisms. Ashamed of their feelings they project their own anxiety onto their children. Understandably so, if you were shamed for having feelings as a child it makes sense that the big feelings of a toddler would trigger your insecurities.
So what can you do?
First, allow children (and yourself) to have feelings. Any kind of feelings. It is always OK to feel angry, sad, disappointed, etc. A person cannot control how they feel, regardless of how old they are. Do not minimize these feelings in an attempt to turn them off. Acknowledge that the feelings exist, accept them for what they are - A FEELING.
Second, change the way you think. The way you think about something changes how you feel about it. Which in turn will change how you act. Ultimately, (and with quite a bit of practice) the goal is to allow a person to have a feeling, change the perspective around it, and help a child to control their OWN behaviors that result. For example, it's time to leave the park and the child is feeling very angry about this. Allow the child to feel angry, acknowledge that you understand they are angry, and show empathy ("I know it's hard to leave the park, I don't like to leave either"). Then, offer a positive way to think about the situation ("it's hard to leave, but it's time to go home and have our favorite dinner. We can come back to the park tomorrow"). The child is allowed to FEEL angry and upset about having to leave the park, but it’s still time to go and the boundary is firm. This isn’t to say the child will suddenly drop everything and follow you home but it does get easier. This comes after time and practice and a strong relationship between parent and child,
I realize this is particularly idealistic. Things rarely go smoothly, and young children have big feelings they struggle to control. However, controlling our emotions is a skill. A skill that is only perfected with practice and support. A skill even most adults struggle to master.
Changing the way you think about a situation will also help you to approach it with more empathy and patience, and in turn it will help you better support and coach your children. You could think "what a brat, she does this every time!" OR you could think "it's always hard for her to leave the park, she really enjoys being outside". Which do you think will result in a more positive response?
Just remember, we are raising the future generation. If we want to change the world for the better we have to be better ourselves. Don't shame and punish children into submission, lift them up and help them grow into the secure and confident people they were born to be. Treat them and talk to them like they are already the strong, empathetic, kind, loving, giving, caring, beautiful, responsible people that they will grow to be one day. Just imperfect beings like you and me who are learning and growing every day.