Shame: The risks of using the blame game

Once upon a time, to use shame to motivate or control behaviour was a typical psychological method. Shame is one of the greatest negative emotions that a person can experience. Whilst in some situations, shame can be beneficial, preventing us from wanting to hurt others or cause those we love pain, as well as stop us doing things that may make people reject us. When shame is used as a way to try and manipulate, control or coerce particular behaviours it can have a hugely negative effect. Frequently, there can be a misconception that using shame is ‘guilting’ a child into performing particular behaviours or helping them to correct their behaviour.

The issue with shame is that it carries one message – ‘I am bad’.

If a child grows up believing that they are ‘bad’ and that everyone around them believes this, it lowers their expectations of themselves and their motivation. In some cases, leading the way to behaviours which are the equivalent to these feelings or surrounding themselves with people who have equally low expectations.

What is shame?

It is thought that a child can feel shame from 15-24 months of age. Shame occurs when we have feelings of being:

  • small
  • worthless
  • humiliation
  • rejected
  • disappointed
  • wanting to disappear
  • not being good enough
  • feelings of self-loathing
  • feelings of disgust

Who might cause shame to a child?

Shame can be a toxic situation. However, it can occur in multiple places and by many people, both from a child’s peers or adults involved with them. Frequently, those adults who generate feelings of shame, did not mean to do this, and are unaware of the impact of their words. Shame can occur:

  • At home
  • In the classroom
  • Online via social media
  • In sports clubs or groups
  • Whilst gaming
  • In the workplace
  • In friendship groups
  • Through school reports
  • Through professional’s reports or feedback
  • By parents or professionals talking about a child

What might it look like?

Shame is a complex emotion, and can be triggered in many situations. Frequently, shaming is done in the heat of a moment and is not intentional, sometimes from frustration, our own struggles or feeling overwhelmed.

Often, the use of shame is learnt from social learning, from our own upbringing and experiences or those that we have witnessed. It may have been done to us, or we have seen friends or colleagues using it and adopt these behaviours. It can include (list not exhaustive and for context):

  • Publicly calling a child or teenager out for their mistakes (in the classroom, in front of peers or online)
  • Calling out a child’s behaviour on social media
  • Sharing embarrassing stories or photographs of your child on social media
  • Sharing private conversations with others
  • Intentionally making a child feel bad
  • Consistently listing all the things that you do not like or are not happy with about a child
  • Only commenting on what a child has done wrong or does not do
  • Announcing children’s mistakes or wrong-doings to others
  • Using a child as an ‘example’ to the class as how ‘not’ to behave
  • Referring to a child as ‘bad’
  • Shouting/screaming at a child or teenager, especially in front on others
  • Telling a child that they are not wanted  because of their behaviour
  • Humiliating a child or teenager for their behaviours to friends, family or teachers
  • Highlighting a child’s weaknesses, fears or worries to others without their permission
  • Shaming a child or teenager for not completing their homework in front of the class
  • Constantly bringing up a child’s mistakes or failures (not letting go of the past)
  • Children excluding others from their social group
  • Children being bullied for mistakes, differences or developmental reasons
  • Being spoken about negatively to others without awareness, or being told afterwards
  • Being called out for errors in front of others
  • Being told that they have ‘let people down’ for making an error in judgement
  • Being told that they have ‘failed’ because they did not meet expectations
  • The use of charts or points systems which only reward achievements in one way e.g. academia or attendance when these thresholds are not possible for a child
  • Labelling a child as ‘bad’ ‘naughty’ ‘lazy’ or ‘not capable’ or ‘unreliable’
  • Telling a child you are ‘tired’ of them

However, we should also be aware that we can inadvertently cause shame to a child who is doing well, by:

  • Making a fuss or embarrassing them for doing ‘too well’ or being ‘too clever’
  • By comparing them to others
  • By making comments which make them feel bad for achieving
  • By highlighting their behaviours to others
  • By disregarding their achievements because they ‘always make them’
  • Telling them we are not proud or not acknowledging achievements which are not in line with our desires

Symptoms of shame

A child who is experiencing shame, might:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Appear to hide from the world – slumped posture, trying to make themselves small
  • Freeze when spoken to, or attention is on them
  • Blushing
  • Running off or hiding
  • Calling themselves ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’
  • Commenting that noone likes them
  • Being sensitive to feedback (positive or negative)
  • Being worried about what others think of them
  • A reduction in attendance in school or clubs
  • A downturn in academic or skill based achievements
  • Avoidance
  • Disconnect with those around them
  • Reluctance to try things

The consequence of shaming children

Studies have identified that children who experience high levels of shame have higher activity in the amygdala (the threat centre) in the brain. Children, by nature, are inquisitive. They want to explore, learn and find out more about their environment. Just as with adults, they make mistakes, but often are held to higher consequence for these mistakes despite having less life experience. Being told they are not good enough can cause heightened stress and anxiety, as well as fear of rejection.

Shame has been found to increase the susceptibility for depression, anxiety and feelings of paranoia. Shame has been found to be an incredibly complex emotion which has emotional, intellectual and social implications.

Further, a child who has experienced ongoing shame, becomes conditioned that being told that they are worthless is ‘the norm’ reducing their abilities to recognise toxic or abusive behaviours from peers, adults or in relationships. Shaming a child can increase their risks of emotional abuse and prevent them from having healthy emotional boundaries.

When shame is used to motivate children it can actually have the opposite effect. It can lead to a child lying or being secretive and reduces their problem solving skills.

Shame can cause children to feel demotivated and that they cannot change, or are not capable of change.

Shame reduces a child’s self-worth and self-esteem, devaluing them and leading to them placing less value on themselves.

Steps to increase self-worth and reduce shame

  1. Do not label – avoid using labels such as ‘naughty’ or ‘stupid’ as these prevent communication with a child or teenager. Pointing out a child’s weaknesses or shortfalls only further reduces their self-worth.
  2. Talking voices not shouting voices – when we shout, we create a barrier for communication. Sitting down and talking through struggles, challenges or obstacles allows us to connect with a child. Focus on hearing what they are saying and possible support rather than shortfalls.
  3. Look at what is going on under the behaviour – ask questions about how a child is feeling, focussing on behaviour not the child. Keep feedback balanced – keeping in mind what they did well as well as areas which need support.
  4. Step away from public humiliation – never in the history of the world, did shouting at someone change the behaviour, frequently it just makes it worst. At all costs, do not shout at a child in front of their peers or an audience. If you do mistakenly shout, apologise for the behaviour.
  5. Recognise the successes – when we only look at the negatives we develop an unbalanced view of the child. Ensuring that we look at their successes, positive qualities and traits we keep a clearer perspective.
  6. Increase emotional literacy – support a child to develop the language skills for their feelings so that they feel more confident to express themselves and seek support.
  7. Step away from social media – Whilst venting can make us feel better, once things are on social media we cannot remove them or who has seen them. This can prevent children from sharing their thoughts and worries as they do not want everyone to know. This can also be applied to talking to other family members on the phone or at home when the child is in ear shot. Keep conversations discreet and apply the principle of treating others how we would want to be treated.
  8. Be aware of your own fear – some subjects can make us feel fearful, for instance, suicidal thoughts, self-harm or provocative behaviours often cause people unease. Being aware of how you feel and taking steps to work through this can prevent judgement and shaming when a child or teen approaches you
  9. Create safe spaces – treat children and teens as you would want to be treated. Create safe and trusted places where they can talk to you without judgement and shame, and problem solving can occur to help find ways better
  10. Find productive ways to vent your own frustrations – when we are frustrated we can project this onto others. Whether it is a therapist, coach or trusted friend, find positive ways to manage your own emotions so that you can best support young people
  11. Remember they are an iceberg – what we see is only a third of the problem, the behaviours are a symptom not the cause. Taking time to work with a young people to identify what is happening underneath the behaviours allows us to better support.


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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – HERE 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

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