Language Matters When it Comes to Shame

Recently I’ve joined several parenting (mom) Facebook groups online to get a sense of some of the topics that parents are struggling with. It’s supposed to be a place of support, where mothers can ask questions without fear of judgment. I have found it is quite far from that. I think I naively assumed that other people would obey the rules and stay silent if they didn’t have something nice to say. It’s far from that in fact. It’s a cesspool of judgment. But that’s not actually what I’m hear to talk about. One of the other things I found interesting in the groups was the way some of the moms were responding to discipline related posts. They weren’t just recommending spanking…but their ideas of how children should be disciplined were filled with rage, power, humiliation, embarrassment, and shame.

Shame was the one that really got me though. I’ve been reading and listening to a ton of Brene Brown’s work, and that’s the topic she studies. So these responses just kept coming back to me. In her work, she tells us that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Guilt, she says, has the opposite correlations. So what’s the difference between guilt and shame? Shame is focused on the person (you are bad) and guilt is focused on the behavior (you did something bad).

Isn’t that just semantics, you say? Actually, it’s not according to the research. Language affects the way we internalize messages, and how we internalize those messages color the way we view the world. I doubt there is any parent out there that would want their child to grow up with the list of things associated with shame, yet many of our discipline strategies are entirely shame based.

It’s embedded in our language and our daily interactions with children. I remember as a young mother playing with my toddler and laughing as I said “You’re bad” as she was being sneaky in a game we were playing. It was an innocent comment on my part, said in jest, but did it affect her in a negative way? I’ll honestly never know for sure.

But what I do know is this: given the knowledge I now have around shame and its affects, I will make every attempt to focus on behavior rather than character in all of my interactions…whether those interactions are with children or adults. If shame has all of these negative correlations, I don’t want to be part of it. Do you? 

Building Relationships with Children Who Have Challenging Behaviors

We always talk about how important it is to build relationships with children, but let’s be real. Some children are just really hard to build relationships with. I remember when I first went back to school to get my early childhood degree, one of my professors went around the room and asked why we went into this field. Of course, most of the answers sounded something like, “I love children!” She proceeded to tell us that we better have another reason for going into this field because that one wasn’t good enough. We all looked at her like she had three heads! She proceeded to tell us that of course, we should like children. But that alone is not going to sustain us through the challenging moments of being an early childhood teacher. She continued to say that one day we would find a child that we didn’t like….and then what? I thought that was just cruel…they’re just small children…what could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

Fast forward a few years when I was teaching first grade…I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it…but I just didn’t like her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t like her. I could never quite put my finger on it…perhaps our energies were just conflicting. But I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even stronger. It was a tough year. I tried to make sure that I was building a strong relationship with her despite my personal preferences. I tried my best to learn to like her. It didn’t work always work, but over the year we did find some common ground. I can say honestly that she thrived in my classroom.

No matter how much you may love children, the same thing will happen to you at some point. You’ll find the child that challenges every cell in your body. You’ll find the child that makes it hard to build those positive relationships. Your challenge, then, is to push forward and continue to find a way to make a connection. Because it’s only through connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Challenging Behavior can appear in many different ways. It is also highly subjective…what one caregiver considers challenging, another may not. The important thing to remember with any type of challenging behavior is that the child is trying to send you a message in the only way that he/she feels capable of at the time. When you can look for the message, it becomes easier to respond in an appropriate manner. Responding in an appropriate manner can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Children who are highly sensitive tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their perceptions of the world can be much more intense than the average child, and any type of change can be overwhelming to this child. They may be cautious, fearful, shy, worry a lot, or be anxious. As they grow, this may lead to moodiness, irritability, or depression. You might notice that highly sensitive children react more sensitively to touch, loud noises, bright lights, or change. They may also get easily overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Strategies:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the amount of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! If you notice the child reacting to bright lights, try dimming the lights in the classroom. If the child holds his hands over his ears at group time, give him a pair of headphones to wear.
  • Help the child label and talk about his feelings. Validate what the child is feeling and show empathy towards him.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.

The Self-Absorbed Child

The child who is self-absorbed is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, easily tired, shows little enthusiasm. You may find this child to be more passive and not as responsive as other children. Caregivers may need to show more enthusiasm and effort to engage the child.

Strategies:

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same type of activities that others may enjoy.
  • Provide a quiet space where this child can get away from everyone for some alone time.
  • Children in this category can have vivid imaginations. Provide them with an outlet for imaginary play such as puppets or dramatic play areas and props.
  • Resist insisting that the child spend time with or be friends with the other children in the classroom. Respect the child’s speed and preferences when it comes to establishing relationships or spending time with others.

The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the child who is stubborn, always trying to be in control, and engages in constant power struggles with those in charge. Children who are defiant can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments as this just makes the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains 5 elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t actually mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you actually plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you actually mean. Be cautious when establishing limits and consequences.
    • Know what you can’t control.
      As much as we’d like to think we can control everything, we can’t. We can’t actually control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting for instance. We can’t control IF a child picks up a toy. Think carefully about whether you actually have control over what you want the child to do, or if you just wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. You may not be able to control whether the child picks up the toys, but you can control what choices are available to the child UNTIL those toys are picked up.
    • Follow through.
      Make sure that you follow through on what you say you are going to do. This builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

The Inattentive Child

This child is highly distractible. He tends to be restless, fidgety, always on the go, and may quickly shift his attention from one activity to the next. Caregivers may find the child rarely finishes an activity that he started.

Strategies:

  • Be sure that your space is not overwhelming with distractions. Avoid covering every wall with something decorative. Avoid hanging things from the ceiling as this can be a distraction as well. Choose carefully when putting things on the wall to avoid “visual clutter”.
  • Provide the child with fidget toys during activities to help keep the child’s attention.
  • Allow for lots of movement and breaks. Avoid asking the child to sit for long periods of time, and offer lots of opportunities for active play.

The Active Aggressive Child

The active aggressive child tends to be more impulsive than most and may react physically to situations without even thinking. She may hit, punch, or kick to express her anger. She becomes frustrated more easily than most children, and has a hard time controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies:

  • Be as warm and nurturing as possible. It’s sometimes hard to show this type of care with these children, but the less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more her aggressive behaviors will increase.
  • Provide firm structure and limits for the child. Establish boundaries and consequences and be sure to follow through.
  • Help the child to express her feelings in appropriate ways. You may allow the child to push against a wall or squeeze a stress ball or twist a towel when angry. Avoid allowing the child to hit anything, even a punching bag or bean bag chair. Since the child has a hard time controlling impulses she might not differentiate in the moment between what is ok to hit and what is not.
  • Don’t give in to angry outbursts. If the child gets her way through this behavior, you have just reinforced that it works.

I’ll leave  you with this final quote by Ben Stein. “Relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, and all achievement in real life grows.”