How do we help our children stay out of shame?

Shame is a big part of the experience for children with relational trauma. It gets in the way of their ability to learn from their mistakes.

A child learns whether their behaviour is acceptable from the reactions of their caregivers. When we have to discipline a toddler, we help them with feelings of shame by re-engaging with them quickly.  In this way they learn a healthy sense of guilt & can cope when we get cross with them. When they’ve behaved badly, they are motivated to repair the relationship. They develop a consistent sense of right and wrong and can separate their sense of self from what they do. They learn ‘I’m loved, even if they don’t like my behaviour’.

This isn’t the case for children who’ve been neglected & abused. For these children, who’ve often been met with overly punishing responses in the past, shame is not contained – it becomes overwhelming & part of their core identity. What they learn is, ‘I’m bad’.

For new parents, carers & teachers, this creates big challenges, as with some children, even the slightest criticism or potential failure can trigger a rage or melt down. Shame based behaviours include lying, excuses, minimising & blame.

This is why moving from a behavioural approach to a relational approach can help. When we prioritise the relationship & help a child feel safe & understood, before we address their behaviour, we can help them to move from shame to guilt. This is ‘connecting before we correct’ & we help them learn they are loved, whether their behaviour is good or bad. When we do this, a child is far more likely to experience remorse and make amends.

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