Toxic Shame and How to Parent Without It

toxic shame

Image by Caleb Woods via Unsplash

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” This phrase was common in our house when I was growing up as it was for many children in the western world.

North American parents today might not speak the phrase as often, but discipline both at home and at school continues to use shaming as a tool. But does shame help kids change into the cooperative and intelligent decision-makers we hope they will become? The research tells us the answer is a resounding “no.” The only change deep shame cultivates is the kind that leaves kids isolated and hurting.

My parenting is hugely flawed. If I showed you a video of my worst moments, you probably wouldn’t continue reading, let alone come to my house for a play date. But my nine-year-old son is a delightful, cooperative, and happy kid who loves and respects his parents and who is willing to learn and grow when he makes mistakes. When we are consistent with the basics of parenting, our children are resilient enough to be fine, even when we aren’t at our best. The important thing is to show our kids through our actions that we love them unconditionally and that we respect who they are, their needs, and their desires. Responding to our kids with kindness and using discipline to teach yields children with robust health, confidence, and an enormous capacity to love, learn, and grow, in spite of our imperfections.

So what about shame? Aren’t kids supposed to feel shame when they do something bad? Isn’t that how they learn? In this article, I’ll walk you through an exploration of the subject, beginning with a definition of shame, what the research says about shame and its role in child development, types of parenting behaviors likely to produce shame in our kids, alternatives to those behaviors, and other steps you can take to shield your child from toxic shame.

Shame: a definition (and yes, it’s different from guilt)

Shame is defined by Merriam Webster as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.”  But in contemporary usage, shame is more nuanced. Shame can be a feeling of not fitting in, not belonging, or being inherently wrong. Brené Brown, a social worker and shame researcher, defines shame as a feeling of unworthiness. Author Peggy Drexler says shame is a feeling of being stupid or bad.  The basic message of shame? “There’s something wrong with you.”

Shame is different from guilt in that it’s an indictment of the whole person rather than a behavior or incident. In other words, guilt is what you do but shame is who you are. Another perspective on the difference between the two was shared by this blogger: “Guilt…arises out of a feeling that one’s actions have violated her own internal values. Shame instead is a sense that one has violated external values, that of his social group, with his way of being.”

Shame becomes toxic when someone has internalized it and it becomes part of the person’s identity. For a person with toxic shame, the shame becomes poison, mentally, emotionally, and physically, with the most extreme cases leading the person to think about, attempt, or complete suicide.

Research: shaming doesn’t work

It’s surprising to see the vast amount of research showing that not only is shaming harmful to the child, it also is ineffective as a discipline tactic. An eight-year longitudinal study in Canada found that “…punitive discipline was subsequently associated with more antisocial behavior, less pro-social behavior, and increased levels of anxiety.” An example: kids who bully are far more likely than non-bullies to have been raised by authoritarian parents who punish as their primary method of discipline.

Educator Alfie Kohn provides this interesting analysis of punishment:

“A punishment is a response by someone with more power (say, an adult) to a prohibited action on the part of someone with less power (in this case, a child). Specifically, it consists of deliberately making the child suffer in some way. The intent may be to discourage the child from repeating the action, but the more common results of punishment are that the child (1) becomes angry and frustrated, (2) learns that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and (3) becomes more focused on self-interest and less likely to consider how his actions affect others. Punishment induces kids to ask, ‘What do they, the people with the power, want me to do, and what’s the consequence to me if I don’t do it?’”

Interestingly, Kohn notes that the definition of bullying and the definition of punishing are essentially the same: “a hostile action — or a pattern of abuse, intimidation, or harassment over time — in which those who are smaller or weaker are victimized by those who are larger or stronger.”

In learning about behavior that is socially beneficial versus that which is not, a child needs to learn self-regulation so eventually she can put an impulse on hold for something she wants more. Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel coined this the “prefrontal cortex clutch,” because the child literally shifts gears from the antisocial behavior, like stealing or acting inappropriately, to a socially acceptable behavior that gets her something more important, like the trust of her parents. This is learned through brain wiring and reinforced each time her parents help her do this.

Example: a child is climbing on the sofa. The parent says, “I see you want to climb, which is so much fun! But we don’t climb on sofas because we can hurt ourselves and we can get the furniture dirty. Let’s go to the park where you can climb more safely.” This affirms the child’s need to climb and helps her understand the problems with the behavior. Eventually the child internalizes the parent’s voice and will make that decision for herself.

This is quite different from the shaming approach, which doesn’t provide her with the wiring her brain needs to learn the lesson. The parent might yell, “Get off that couch. You should know better, don’t be a troublemaker. How many times do I have to tell you, and you just won’t listen. Go to time out.” The child’s brain and body don’t get the experience necessary to wire the prefrontal cortex. But on top of that, the girl also learns that her desire to climb is wrong and that it leads her to be separated from her parent because she’s bad. The shame is also likely to create anger, which has nothing to do with the lesson the parent wanted the girl to learn. Instead of closeness and guidance, the girl is left with shame. She learns that she has to be sneaky when climbing on the sofa so her mom won’t know.

Young children can’t distinguish a judgment about their behavior from a judgment about who they are as people, which is why judgment from parents and teachers creates shame.

When a child is punished about something he does, his sense of guilt is magnified and he learns that if he makes a mistake, his parents will withdraw and disconnect and use their power to make him suffer. Instead of learning how to embrace, understand, and learn from mistakes, to make repairs and get through difficulties with other people, the child learns she has to avoid mistakes entirely or hide them. In the teen years, this shows up in conditions like eating disorders, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, rebellion, addiction and other big problems.

A person with toxic shame is someone who has great difficulty taking responsibility for a mistake. Doing something wrong is evidence of the person’s wrongness, so mistakes have a more global and intense impact than with a confident person who feels worthy. A person without toxic shame can make a mistake and cause harm, a normal part of being human, and then take the necessary steps to repair the relationship and learn not to repeat the action in the future.

How we create toxic shame in our children

(W)hen it comes to our feelings of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most shaped by our families of origin — what we hear, what we’re told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging in the world.

– Brené Brown

It doesn’t take much to shame our kids because we are their teachers. They look to us to introduce them to the world and to teach them about who they are. We also teach them by example, so it’s important as parents that we work to have a non-shaming relationship with ourselves.

Shaming is surprisingly easy to do. It can happen out in the world or at home, in private. It can be physical, like a spanking or a push or a yank, or something more subtle, like rolling our eyes or sighing and shaking our heads (Drexler). It can be verbal, like name-calling or comparing a child with a sibling or friend. It can be emotional, like ignoring them when they need us or being emotionally cold and unavailable.

Shaming behaviors in parents include getting even, yelling, guilt-tripping, and punishing, including time-out. When we give our kids a put-down about who they are, even something as benign as being absentminded, they receive shame. When we criticize what they want, they receive shame. When we find flaws in their feelings, they receive shame. And when we communicate that their needs are wrong, they receive shame.

Alfie Kohn writes about how judgments are harmful to growing kids. Even positive judgments like “good job!” are ultimately damaging because of their evaluative nature. If we stop and think about it, what we really mean is something else. “It’s exciting for me to watch you go down the slide by yourself” is more accurate, and it’s a statement that connects because we’re sharing a feeling.

Also, who are we to evaluate whether the child’s slide was in fact “good” or “not good?” We’re certainly not experts, and what’s more, our statement lets kids know that if there’s a good way of doing it, there’s most certainly also a bad way. Kohn encourages parents to support, encourage, and nurture their kids, but he works with parents to develop expressions that fuel kids’ healthy growth and development instead of judgments which frequently lead to shame and other unintended consequences that adversely affect our children.

Shame-busting parenting choices

If we re-think our role with our children and understand discipline as teaching and coaching, we can reframe decisions we make and learn to discipline effectively and respectfully. Discipline “…is about correcting and guiding (children) toward more appropriate behavior,” not getting even, making kids feel badly, or feeling we are in control.

Effective discipline results in children who can self-regulate emotions, who can manage behavior, who cooperate with parents because they want to, who have a conscience and use it when making decisions, and who are confident that they are worthy and loved regardless of their actions. To do that, we must find alternatives to shaming behaviors when disciplining our children. None of us is perfect, but we all improve by developing an inner compass that helps us make choices that allow our kids to develop healthy selves.

Also, deepening our connection with our kids helps reduce the chance of our children developing toxic shame. Attachment parenting is a philosophy and practice geared toward strengthening the parent-child bond and is enormously helpful in protecting children from toxic shame.

Also, we can learn to have a different perspective about children’s misbehavior. If we look at those incidents as opportunities for discussion and learning, we will be surprised at how much both we and our children stand to gain. If we get curious, if we ask questions and approach the situation with a problem-solving mindset, it becomes something we are doing with our child rather than to our child.

When we do this, we quickly realize that what we’re asking of our children is enormously difficult, something we often don’t know how to do ourselves. My own son is notoriously bad at leaving his stuff everywhere and not picking up before he starts something new. When we sat down together to problem solve, I was left with the question, “How can we develop the awareness that we’re stopping one thing and starting another, and therefore need to look around and see if there’s something we need to clean up?” I truly had no idea. So my son and I have become learners and researchers together. It certainly got harder for me to expect him to change by yelling at him and criticizing him.

Emotion coaching is another practice that helps us shame-proof our parenting. When our children are distressed, they need to be seen and understood, so we mirror them and in doing so, we provide the kind of comforting and affirmation they need to move through the feelings and recover. Then, as a separate step, we set the limit and engage them in problem-solving. If they feel understood and close to us, they are far more likely to align with us and work with us to solve whatever issue they’re dealing with.

What else you can do

Working on our own shame could ironically be the most beneficial action we can take in shielding our kids from toxic shame. When I mentioned I was writing an article about shame in parenting to a colleague, she mistakenly thought the piece was about the ways we feel badly about ourselves as parents. It’s no accident that we are often inundated with shame as parents since most of us were parented with shaming when we were kids.

Also, the culture in the west is based on competition and performance, and we are constantly inundated with judgments. When we step away from judgment in communication and toward our subjective experience, we become more in touch with who we are as well as closer to the people around us.

For example, when we see a film, we’re likely to talk about how great it was or how bad it was. Since this is a low stakes situation, it’s a wonderful opportunity to practice communicating our experience instead. We might say, “The music really drew me in but I didn’t connect with the male lead and found his character not believable.”

Brené Brown said that the thing we’re least likely to do when we have a shame attack is to talk about what happened, which is ironically what we need to do to prevent toxic shame. “…shame encourages the person to keep what makes him feel ashamed of himself as a secret from others and that only makes the shame grow.” So talking about shame is another hack.

Additional steps we can take:

-Provide our kids with love and acceptance that are not attached to any behaviors or accomplishments.

-Speak from own experience and impact; work against all judgments toward kids including positive  judgments (they are still judgments).

-Notice how shaming comes into play in our other relationships and try new ways of relating.

-Meditate to decrease the likelihood lashing out/reacting and increase the likelihood of thought-out responses.

-Connect with other adults in our kids’ lives to work on the project as a family/community. It takes a village.

-Strive for balance in our own lives; women, pay special attention to making sure your own needs are part of the picture.

Preventing toxic shame in our kids requires time, effort, and a lot of learning. But it’s quite possibly the most impactful contribution we can make to human evolution, and a deeply joyful path we walk together with our children.



 Brené Brown on difference between shame and guilt and research on how people behave so differently (video):

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown

Website of Dr. Dan Siegel, a practitioner of interpersonal neurobiology:

Shame-proof your parenting: practice attachment parenting:

 Website of educator Alfie Kohn:

Unconditional Parenting: a book by Alfie Kohn:

By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Gail Marlene Schwartz is a mother, a runner, and a writer. As Content Curator for JogAlong Stroller, she writes blog articles, video scripts, and ad copy.