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How to Combat Shame Our Kids Feel

Shame is a powerful and pervasive emotion that can significantly impact our mental health and well-being. We all experience it at times, and it can arise from various sources, which can differ for kids and teens from adults.

One of our favorite experts on the subject is Brene Brown, a renowned researcher who has extensively studied shame and vulnerability. Recognizing feelings of shame and cultivating a sense of empathy and connection with others is vital to overcoming it. Ultimately, combating shame requires being vulnerable and confronting the negative beliefs and emotions that hold us back.

What are some aspects of our kids’ lives that can cultivate feelings of shame?

Common contributors to shame in kids:

  • Achievement/Grades/Report Cards: Children may feel shame from grades and report cards if they perceive their grades as a reflection of their worth or pressure from parents or teachers to perform at a certain level. When they compare themselves to peers or siblings, they can feel inadequate. In addition, students can feel ridiculed for doing their homework last minute or not getting accepted into the school they applied for.

  • Social Media: Social media use can increase feelings of shame due to the pressure to present a perfect image of oneself, the fear of missing out, and the comparison to others' seemingly perfect lives. Additionally, kids can experience cyberbullying, which increases the shame they feel.

  • Past-Time: Students can feel judged for scrolling through social media, playing video games, or binging their favorite tv show or Youtube channel.

  • Getting or Asking for Help: Feelings of guilt and embarrassment can arise when kids need more support, preventing them from asking for or accepting the help they desire. Students might feel ashamed to ask for help or support for various reasons, including fear of judgment or rejection or concern about being seen as incompetent.

Fortunately, there are strategies that we can use to combat shame and cultivate greater self-compassion and resilience! Here are a few tips to help you get started:

To combat shame in kids, it's important to

Focus on the journey instead of the finish line!

  1. Validate your child's emotions and let them know it's okay to feel disappointed or upset about an unexpected grade they worked hard to study for.

  2. Encourage your child to reflect on the process, not just the trophy. What did they do to get the grade they wanted? What would they do differently?

  3. Celebrate their progress, no matter how small.

  4. Avoid comparing your child to others and instead focus on their strengths and talents. Sprinkle their strengths in all areas of their life!

  5. Place more emphasis on the process than on outcomes! Perhaps they need help with executive function skills and need help remembering what they've heard, their homework, or how to get started on tasks. Let them know they're not alone, and there are ways to improve these skills!

Build a strong sense of self and an understanding of their value–so they can see how thoughts of shame conflict with their core beliefs in who they are as a person.

  1. Emphasize the importance and value of authenticity and not comparing themselves to others online.

  2. Be selective about who they follow and interact with.

  3. Take breaks from social media when needed/limit screen time.

  4. Always encourage them to reach out and talk to a trusted adult if they're feeling overwhelmed, targeted, or ashamed due to social media.

Find alternatives (in addition) to screen time, and encourage physical activity and face-to-face social interaction for past-time hobbies.

  1. Get curious as to what it is that your child enjoys about online gaming/video games. Is it the strategy? Is it the social community? Find out what they like about their pastime. Their chosen pastime fills a void!

  2. Avoid shameful language and see their past-time hobbies from their lens. Could the language and tone used surrounding their gaming be triggering feelings of shame in this area for them?

  3. Incorporate other ways to fill this void so their hearts are full. If it’s the social interaction with gaming, what else would they be open to trying to meet that need?

  4. If they are interested in gaming, a local robotics, chess, or Lego club would be a great addition!

Help them to reframe that asking for help is a sign of strength.

  1. Normalize that asking for help is part of the learning process and an important part of growth. Asking and accepting help enables people to become a better version of themselves- it’s a sign of strength!

  2. Lead by example: model asking for help at home, work, and with friends. Discuss how teams, businesses, schools, and the community would not function without people collaborating, learning from each other, and helping one another.

  3. Discuss how all people are a bag of things–we all have weaknesses, strengths, and things that are neither a weakness nor a strength. Asking for help does not diminish strengths. We are a mix of things and should expect not to be stellar in everything! When children recognize their strengths, accepting that not everything will come easy to them, they develop a greater sense of self and are much more open to asking for help.

These are just a few steps to take with your student; however, we can begin to help them cultivate greater self-acceptance, self-compassion, and resilience, which will help them to go on to live a more fulfilling, authentic life as a result. Remember, there is no shame in learning, growing, or being who they are! This is a lifelong, evolving process throughout our lives, where shame has no space to stay. Everyone is on a unique journey, with individual needs and strengths worth supporting and celebrating!

To listen to a podcast on Radical Compassion, check out this episode of the Being Well Podcast: Radical Compassion with Tara Brach.

Read what Brené Brown says is the difference between shame vs. guilt.

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Written by Jenny Drennan (M. Ed., ET/P) and Geneva Walsh (M. Ed.)

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