For children who experience sensitive, responsive caregiving, shame is a feeling that is experienced at a young age. These feelings might be triggered when the child is told off and through this, they help teach children about behaviours that are deemed acceptable and unacceptable.
As children get older, through the support of their caregiver, their understanding develops and feelings of shame evolve into feelings of guilt. In contrast to shame, guilt can be motivating to repair a situation where distress has been caused to others. Through feelings of guilt, confidence and self-esteem can be developed based on the realisation that the child can successfully correct their mistakes.
But what if a child hasn’t experienced sensitive, responsive caregiving?
In these cases, children can be stuck in a state of shame. Through their early experiences, they may have developed an inherently negative self-concept, believing that they are bad and unlovable. Feelings of shame can be very painful to experience and so children may utilise certain behaviour strategies in order to protect themselves from these feelings.
Deny - lying is a strategy for denying any behaviours that might reflect the ‘badness’ of the child. Lying can also create conflict which might maintain emotional distance between the child and their caregivers.
Blame - by blaming others, attention is deflected away from the child. This might reduce feelings of anxiety that are experienced if the child believes others are evaluating them and might the expose their ‘badness’.
Minimise - similar to lying, minimising their role in a behaviour can reduce feelings of shame. Equally, avoiding apologising can also minimise a child’s role in relation to a behaviour or situation.
Rage - a child experiencing shame might display heightened anger or aggression. For them, these emotions may be considered far less painful than experiencing shame and are therefore preferable.
How do we respond to a child who experiences shame?
Firstly, it is important to recognise that ‘traditional’ behavioural approaches will not work and may further feed into an ongoing cycle of shame.
DON’T repeatedly ask whether they did something – this will increase their use of their ‘shield of shame’ responses.
DON’T become angry yourself – they are likely to mirror this emotion.
DON’T tell them they are ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ – this will reinforce their self-concept of being inherently bad.
Instead, respond to situations with curiosity, acceptance and empathy.
DO prioritise connection before correction – rather than immediately reprimanding the child, demonstrate compassion and empathy in order to connect with the child.
DO implement meaningful consequences – help the child learn ways of rectifying the situation.
DO express unconditional positive regard – provide reassurance to the child that you continue to like them (although you may not like the way they have behaved in this situation).