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  • Understanding Shame vs Guilt – Why Does Shame Hurt When We Use it To Parent

    What’s the Difference

    Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” 

    Carl Gustav Jung


    Shame and guilt are often talked about together, but they are different emotions, and each affects us in different ways. Guilt is the knowledge and a feeling that an individual has done something wrong or hurtful to someone else, with a recognition that making amends is necessary. In other words, a wrong has been done, and it can be corrected. 


    Shame is more of an internalized feeling and sense an individual has of being worthless, bad,  or insignificant. As well, shame can be a driving force in insecure attachments, creating a sense that a child can never do enough right or be enough to be loved. Those with a sense of shame face difficulties forming healthy relationships with others. With this feeling, one’s actions may not bring about a more positive feeling, because the feeling of shame is deep-rooted and is strengthened with cognitive distortions or unhealthy thoughts about oneself.  This creates negative core beliefs that can last a lifetime without the support of a therapist or relationship with a patient and securely attached individual.


    Shame to Teach a Lesson

    Taking shortcuts in thinking is natural for people, and for parents and those who work with children, the thinking involved in helping kids to learn to make the best choices may be difficult. Using shame to bring about compliant behavior, however, does not lead children to learn lessons and values that they need to bring to situations that they will face later, and it does not lead them to gain empathy and compassion. 


    Empathy is a basic part of relationships where we can imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Children who learn to make the best choices are likely being guided by empathy as they can see how their choices impact others. Shaming can make children feel helpless and weak and lead them to act towards others in ways that are cynical, belittling, and very critical. Shaming also does not encourage children to own their behavior and leads them to deny and lie about their behaviors. 


    What Can you Do Differently?

    Often it can be difficult to know when we, as parents, are using shame as a parenting tool. It was likely used on us as we grew up since it has been a “go to” parenting tool for generations.  So, how do parents and those who work with children motivate or discipline them without shaming them? 


    It is important to realize that while we all make mistakes, children love to please their parents and their caretakers. Self-control, restraint, composure, and calmness are required to help children grow and learn to own their behavior as they learn to make good choices. When teaching children to make good choices, it can help to ask questions, like, “What could you have done differently?” 


    It is also helpful to not characterize a child as ‘bad’ when they have made a wrong choice.  Instead, help them think about the choice and how it impacted others. Additionally, help your child know what feelings have come up for you when you have an emotional response to a decision or action they have made – it’s important, however, to describe these as your feelings or reactions, not saying something like “you made me angry”, but instead “when that happened I got angry.” As you engage them in conversations about difficult events and their choices, along with the emotional responses that they observe, they will become more emotionally literate and better able to show self-control and problem-solving skills.


    Allow your children to grow from your expectations. Let them know that you expect them to be caring, kind, and creative, even when they have made choices which have hurt others. Also, try to avoid labeling your child as having a trait in their personality based on what you see in their behavior (i.e. bossy, mean, stupid). Let your children know that you love them and appreciate that they enjoy a variety of activities, even ones in which they don’t excel. You can also help your children grow by letting them realize that it is natural for them to be curious about the world and to push boundaries and that failing happens and growth occurs when we try new things and fail.


    Realize also that teenagers may act in ways that seem oppositional as they are working to find their place in the world. Strong boundaries are necessary, but as children and teens make mistakes, and sometimes show strong emotions, they need to be accepted with empathy, rather than shamed. We, as parents, need to be the best model of what we would like our children to become. Let your child know that perfection isn’t necessary or expected, and that doing their best with schoolwork is more important than getting the best grades. Learning comes about through making mistakes, and it is important for children to be given permission to be vulnerable as they make mistakes, own them, and grow through this process. 


    Shame is something that we all have experienced and it is painful. To encourage your child to experience healthy and gratifying relationships, try to avoid using shame as a parenting tool to teach a lesson.  They will learn plenty with the support of an adult who can help them think through the problem, the feelings of others, and what they can do differently next time.






    Young, K., How to avoid shaming your child—and keep strong, loving boundaries.