I’ve decided to do a short series for my blogs over the next few weeks on shame. This is something that seems to permeate everything that children with Attachment difficulties do. It’s also a very misunderstood emotion I find. It’s not something we talk about much. We understand embarrassment and guilt to some extent but shame seems like a bit of a mystery.
The dictionary definition of shame splits it into shame as a noun and as a verb:-
Noun: shame – a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour or a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action.
Verb: shame – to make (someone) feel ashamed.
It doesn’t really express it strongly enough for me. It can be such a debilitating emotion that actually can impact how you feel at the core of your being that doesn’t go away with nice words. It’s not that feeling of embarrassment that lasts a moment or maybe more if we recall the incident again at a later date. It passes. Shame, at least toxic shame at our core, doesn’t just pass with time.
I know I’ve blogged before about Shame and I sent it out as a reminder last week but if you still haven’t read it and as an introduction into why we have shame and what the impact of early trauma may be on children please read the previous blog here.
In this mini series though I thought I would look closer at some of the behaviours that come out of this feeling of toxic shame that many children, young people and adults feel.
The first one (as it’s fresh in my mind at the moment) is blaming other people. It’s very hard to take responsibility for something when you feel so bad about yourself. It compounds that feeling of wrongness in yourself so as a way of self preservation we blame others. At the moment there’s a song out called “It wasn’t me” by Shaggy. I’m not endorsing this song or video at all but to me it just seems typical of how things are now. In the song he’s caught red-handed having an affair with the woman next door but says “It wasn’t me”. My kids say that all the time. When I see them doing something – “It wasn’t me”. Really?? How can they say that when it obviously was them?
This is not a great thing to teach children. That whatever happens, even if they were caught in the act, just say it wasn’t me and you’ll be ok. For children with Insecure Attachment though there’s more to it. It’s not just a case of not wanting to be in trouble. It’s about not being able to bear the feeling associated with the intense shame of being wrong – not doing wrong. They internalise all the feelings and as a coping strategy because it’s too painful they then project it onto others.
A few examples of this from our family these last few weeks:-
- Daughter wants to go out with friends after school but knows I will say no. Text message to say “my friends want me to go, I told them you wouldn’t be happy but they want me to go”.
- Dog eats someones snack and because I didn’t come running quickly enough to save the food then it’s my fault (even though said child was in the room, not me).
- Apple core found in room – “Dad let me have it”. Yes, I know that but why is it still in your room and not the bin downstairs? “But Dad let me have it!”.
Notice there’s no ownership in any of those scenarios. No admitting of blame on themselves. Everything is always someone else’s fault. This is such a common thread that runs through lots of people’s lives – not just children. I hate to say it too but I’m sure our justice system is full of individuals who just kept saying “it wasn’t me”.
So how can we help children and young people to take responsibility for their actions? This one I find incredibly difficult but something I know they need to be able to learn or they will either be one of life’s victims (not taking ownership of their decisions and choices) or indeed being someone who takes that out on others around them and becomes the doer to others.
I don’t want either. I want my children and others I come across to be able to take responsibility for what they may have done to others and to be able to repair those wrongs. Of course it will take time to get there as if they are stuck in excessive shame then guilt is very hard to experience. Once we can help them move out of shame then we can talk about guilt and making amends for what they have done.
- Work on helping them to come out of shame. This goes back to the cycle of socialisation where there needs to be good attunement with the people around them. When we then discipline them or set up a boundary we also need to make sure we repair afterwards so that they do not stay stuck in shame. Attunement, boundary, repair, attunement. That’s the cycle. As an example of this there was a child in reception who struggled with the classroom environment. She got on well with her Teaching Assistant (attunement) but one day there was an incident where she lashed out at her TA and was disciplined (boundary) – just as an aside the discipline methods we use in schools sometimes are too harsh and shaming but I understand we need to set a boundary in some way. In this case she was excluded for a day. Before the child was sent home she had the opportunity to see that TA again and make sure she was ok – just a smile will do in this case (repair) then the child also made a sorry card at home whilst talking it through with Mum. When she came back in she gave the card to the TA and they resumed their relationship (attunement).
- Listen to the language they use and gently correct. In the three scenarios I mentioned with my children earlier I worked hard to get them to take ownership for those situations. 1) Do you mean you would like to go to the park or your friends? I understand they are asking but do YOU want to go too? 2) I know you are sad that the dog ate your snack but were you closer to the dog at the time than I was? 3) I know Dad let you eat it and that’s absolutely ok but did YOU leave it in your room and not put in the bin downstairs? In all cases try not to have a judgemental tone in your voice but just – these are the facts.
- Take responsibility and ownership of your own part in things. I often have to say sorry to my children for my part in something. Not just when I’ve obviously lost my temper or got things wrong, but also when I’ve put them in situations I knew they would find difficult. We have to step back and consider our part in things. If you know a child will become dysregulated during a particularly exciting game then tell them that afterwards – “I’m sorry I let you take part, I thought you might find it a bit hard so I should’ve kept you with me instead”. They need to know that everyone makes mistakes – that doesn’t mean we ARE a mistake.
I’m sure that as we go through a few of these behaviours over the next weeks there will be some overlap in approach as it’s all to do with helping them to come out of excessive shame to be able to respond in different ways, but I hope that’s helped you just to consider some of the things we can do to help them take responsibility and to stop blaming others. Of course sometimes it is someone elses’ fault. Often these children can be blamed for things, or just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s worth wondering about that too.
Finally, just to say, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs it’s really hard to know when is the right time for children and young people to be able to accept the past and to be capable of moving on. It may take a lifetime. But everything we do now can help or hinder them in that recovery.