skip to Main Content

The impact of shame on child mental health

The Impact Of Shame On Child Mental Health

In our Level 4 Diploma class session this week, we were reviewing the impact of shame on children’s mental health, well-being and self-esteem.

Shame is the feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that children (or adults) experience in response to the perception that they have done something wrong. Essentially, when shame is imparted onto children, it has one message ‘I am bad’.

The issue that we frequently find, is that historically, shame was used as a behaviour management tool. For many adults, they will recall times when they were shamed as children, and therefore we are in danger of doing to others, as was done to us. However, in the current climate, we have a much better understanding of the impact of shame and the damage that it does to children’s mental health, and wider on their behaviours, interactions and involvement.

What happens when we shame children?

When we use shame as a behaviour management technique, it creates a sensation for children that their reputation has been destroyed. By purposely trying to invoke feelings of guilt, or embarrassing a child for their actions, as a means to ‘put them in their place’ or ‘correct their behaviours’ we create sensations of shame. However, shame is a huge emotion, and one that many of us cannot process, so it sits and manifests.

Naturally, shame was considered to be a tool to help us survive, by feeling shame and guilt naturally, when we acted or responded in inappropriate ways, such as shouting at a friend, or saying mean things, it allows us to reflect on our feelings and adapt our behaviours to allow us to stay connected. However, it is the internal guilt that we experience that leads to change, when we have behaved inappropriately, guilt can help us to be kinder, more considerate and compassionate. Guilt is a conflict between our behaviour and our conscience. Frequently, it can be wrongly believed that by shaming a child, we will MAKE them feel guilty and have this same reaction. This is rarely the case.

When shame is imparted upon us, can lead to maladaptive behaviours, such as lying, destroying evidence and self-protection. Shame, in comparison, activates the amygdala in the brain (our fight-flight  response) and is a complex emotion which is attached to our self-consciousness. It activates internal judgement and is associated with feeling unworthy and bad.

This is even more damaging where shame is used and the child is innocent. For instance, calling them out on a behaviour that was not their fault (for instance, being off school due to mental health and being shamed for low attendance) or where we have made a mistake (for example, punishing or shaming a child in front of their peers, when we interpreted the situation incorrectly). The long term

risk, is that we create lasting damage to children’s self-esteem and self-worth, impacting their sense of self.

Shame makes children feel as though they are inadequate. It creates sensations of humiliation, and makes us see ourselves in only a negative light. The difficulty with shame, is that when we utilise it in childhood, it is taken into adulthood.

What are the symptoms of shame?

The symptoms of shame include:

  • Keeping head lowered
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Being sensitive to responses
  • Being scared of looking stupid, so refusing to engage
  • Not getting involved in things, in case they make mistakes
  • Removing themselves from opportunities for fear of having the spotlight on them
  • Feeling that they are not good enough
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Low self-esteem
  • Not making an effort, for fear that they will get it wrong
  • Low self-worth
  • Helplessness
  • Acting out or anger (frequently associated with males)
  • Internalising emotions (frequently associated with females)
  • Feeling rejected
  • Being worried about others opinions of them
  • Blushing or sweating
  • Avoidance, for instance, not being at school on rewards day
  • Self-blame
  • Ruminating on previous failures or comments from others

Shame can lead to anxiety, depression and paranoia. It is also associated with eating disorders, substance misuse, self-harm and destructive behaviours.

So, what can shame look like?

Shame can utilised intentionally, looking for an impact of making children feel bad for their actions, or your perception of their behaviours. However, it can also be done unintentionally, where we may not realise until afterwards the impact of the actions or words we have used. It can look like:

  • Asking ‘what’s wrong with you’ when a child makes a mistake
  • Commenting ‘you could be bothered to join us’ when an absent child returns
  • Asking ‘do you think you can behave today’
  • Repeatedly bringing up past mistakes or behaviours
  • Laughing, ignoring or ridiculing a child for their emotional reactions or feelings
  • Videoing or photographing a child’s behaviour and sharing it with others
  • Commenting about a child’s behaviour on social media
  • Drawing comparisons between children’s achievement points or negative points
  • Highlighting attendance in schools, without empathy for reasons
  • Judging children against unrealistic expectations
  • Commenting on appearance, ability or personality traits in a negative tone
  • Punishing or ridiculing a child for their behaviour in front of their peers
  • Repeated incidents of shame, such as being highlighted in every class
  • Having inconsistent reward or punishment systems, that do not take account of individual needs
  • Being negatively compared to siblings or peers
  • Being bullied for how you look, behave or react to things
  • Having unrealistic expectations of children and holding them to account for not meeting them

Shame and SEN

When children additionally have special educational needs, the utilisation of shame is even more profound. Particularly where:

  • a child has additional needs which have not been recognised or diagnosed
  • a child with special educational needs is not receiving the support they they need

Take home message

When we consider how to support children we can take some messages home from this:

  1. Be empathetic – Take time to look at what is happening behind the behaviours, considering the factors a child may be experiencing, their mental health, self-esteem and needs. The true route to supporting behaviour with children is to have compassion, listen and be open.
  2. Speak once, Think twice – Reflect and review on how we can talk about situations, manage behaviour and support children. Once said, we cannot take things back. Consider how the most sensitive in the class will manage what is being said before saying it – think twice, speak once.
  3. Understand – Behaviour is like an iceberg, and what we see is a symptom of what happens below the surface. Take time to try and understand. Recognising that sometimes, our reactions have more to do with our own feelings and the way we were responded to.
  4. All unique – All children are unique, and rarely does comparison motivate them. Just as with adults, comparisons are more likely to invoke feelings of jealousy, self-loathing and demotivation, so review how children are praised, recognised and supported.


Want to learn more? 

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support children, teaching strategies, resources and activities to improve children’s well-being.  You can join our Level 4 training (here).


© Dandelion Training and Development – All Rights Reserved


Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES 

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

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

Back To Top