parenting foe esteem not shame
PARENTING #101 – Parenting for Esteem not Shame

~ Written By Dr L.Michael Hall and Shawn Dwyer ~

Parent Shame Not All The Same

Parents, when it comes to the emotional state of shame, all “shame” is not the same.

There is healthy shame and there is toxic or dysfunction shame. On the positive side, shame as an emotion is one of the social emotions that helps us to become socialized, even civilized. It occurs along the continuum of one’s awareness of being seen. Being seen and observed by others typically evokes a feeling of self-consciousness, and at first (as a child) we connect that with feeling vulnerable, with having our weaknesses seen. Then in our teenage years, we connect it without a sense of awkwardness and judgment.

Obviously, being seen by others can be positive or negative. Yet either way, the person seen must have a strong enough sense of self (ego-strength) to handle it and that usually means sufficient self-awareness and social skills.

                                      Vulnerability – Humanity 

Rejected Shame  Embarrassment  Observed   Praised   Proud of Valued

Symptoms of Shame

Sometimes when we are seen, and we feel self-conscious, it divides our attention and awareness to such a degree that we cannot function very well at all.  We become awkward and clumsy. This occurs when we become nervous when we speak in public, whenever the spotlight is suddenly put on you, and/or when you suffer performance anxiety. What we’re afraid of is judgment- the other person or persons’ critical evaluation of us, of what we’re doing, of our ability, etc. Often we even join the chorus by adding our own judgments against ourselves.

What we typically feel in such a situation is embarrassed.

We’re aware of being watched and so we feel embarrassed and self-conscious. If what someone catches us doing is socially unacceptable, we feel ashamed. Shame shouts that you have violated a social law, a culturally acceptable way of acting, talking, or relating. This is a healthy sense of shame. It is about behavior in a social context. “You should be ashamed of yourself for doing that!” Given this, let’s create another scale, let’s put shame on a continuum of “sense of doing wrong.”

“Sense of Doing Wrong”

Social wrong—————–Interpersonal wrong———————-Moral wrong

Feeling bad about – Embarrassed – Ashamed – Conscientious – Guilt -Pseudo-Guilt a situation


This shame is an essential emotion for children to experience in order to learn to self-regulate their states of mind and emotion and their behavioral impulses. Yet although this form is inevitable and necessary, parents should not use it intentionally as a strategic form of parenting and that’s because it is too easily misunderstood by children.

Dysfunctional Shame

The not-so healthy form of shame comes when we shame a person for being who he or she is. This shame addresses and attacks the person rather than the behavior. If we humiliate a child so that he feels unworthy, less than others, an inferior human being, we shame that person, not behavior. As a result, one of the interesting things that happens (and this is cross cultural with most groups), the child veers his eyes away from our glance. In fact, often a child is then unable to hold eye contact when in a state of dysfunctional shame.

Behaviour Not Person

In The Developing Mind and Parenting Inside-Out, Daniel Siegel appeals to Attachment Theory to say this about shame. Shame of self as a person is “the emotion evoked when a child’s arousal state is not attuned to by the parent.” By this he means that it arises in a child when the child is in a strong activation of the parasympathetic system (the “stop” emotional system, sense of being wrong, doing wrong) while simultaneously in the very face of a highly charged sympathetic system (the “go” system).  As this confuses the child, the child tends to think that he is wrong.

Schore proposes that “not connecting with a child’s active bid for attunement leads to shame.” Here a child is trying to connect with parents and if what the child does (behavior) isn’t recognized and in fact, treated as an irritant, the child will experience toxic shame. Here as parents, we may misread the child’s behavior and then treat the child as doing something wrong. But “shame on you!” in this context is taken as against the child as a person. Here the child learns something- namely, that he is bad or wrong.

Children naturally personalized (a cognitive distortion) and so a child can develop an understanding, belief, decision, and identity as being inherently wrong, inherently bad, as flawed. This is toxic shame.

Because this distinction can be subtle for a child, as a parent you have to be explicit and crystal clear. 

“You as a person are just fine. You are unconditionally loved and valued. Now when you do X, that’s notokay behavior.”

Parent Responsibility

Here it is up to the parent to make this distinction and then live this distinction in the way one talks with a child. If you esteem them as a person, a human being, unconditionally, then social shame becomes entirely about behavior – social behavior.

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