15 Ways We Shame Our Children

As I work more with our adopted son and in the foster care/adoptive world, I see a connection between trauma and shame. Even if a child never makes a bad choice in their life, the things done to them, and what they see others do causes shame to pour over their soul like a bitter, sticky molasses.


Abusive, broken homes are a sick petri dish for cultivating shame. I don’t think that surprises anyone. If a child is old enough to remember leaving a home to enter foster care or adoption, they often wonder what is wrong with themselves. Even a child who was a baby when placed in foster care or adopted seems to struggle with a deep sense of shame as they grow older.

Sadly, many children live in shame-based homes, not just ones that end up in foster care or adoption.

Many families and even cultures use shame as a way to modify behavior.

I agree on one hand that it is good for a child, or anyone, to recognize when they have done something wrong and feel remorse. When we have “no shame” we lose our filter of what is right and wrong.

So when is shame a good thing, and when is it a bad thing?

First, there is a difference between shame and guilt. I think there is even a difference between shame and toxic shame.

When our child does something wrong, it is important that they understand what the wrong behavior is and why it’s wrong. I define that as guilt.

However, that’s different from what toxic shame is. Guilt tells us that we did something bad or unacceptable. Toxic shame tells us we are something bad and unacceptable. Guilt focuses outward to the action. Toxic shame focuses inward to our identity.

My goal is to bring attention to things we say or do that shame our kids, possibly without us realizing it.

Here are 15 ways we shame our children:

  1. Don’t give them a voice.
  2. Over-correct.
  3. Frequent fighting within the family.
  4. Make it difficult for small successes; daily wins.
  5. Withhold praise.
  6. Use words like “naughty”, “stupid”, and “bad” to describe the child instead of the behavior.
  7. Compare them to siblings or peers.
  8. Dismiss their emotional and physical needs by telling them they are wrong for wanting, feeling, or needing.
  9. Reject them, such as, being too busy for them.
  10. Overly critical.
  11. Insult.
  12. Terrorize with extreme anger.
  13. Body language that communicates disgust, disapproval, etc.
  14. Trivialize their experiences.
  15. Rarely own your bad behavior.

This is definitely not meant to shame you. I even have to catch myself as I read through these, because I see myself doing many of these. The temptation is to beat ourselves up and believe that we are terrible parents. If you saw yourself in a lot of those examples, I’d be surprised if you aren’t believing that about yourself.

So to not leave you feeling helpless…here are a few suggestions to begin changing the culture within your home:

  • Be willing to look at yourself. If you see that you are shaming your child, odds are you come from a shame culture. If so, doing some self-analysis and possibly healing will help you break that cycle with your own child.
  • Think of discipline as a way of training your child and not behavior modification. Seek to train the way the child feels and thinks about morality. Shaming them produces shallow results anyway.
  • Seek to understand why your child is behaving the way they are. It could be more developmental than disobedience. If you have a child from a hard place, their behavior probably is fear driven as a result of trauma.

I am working on a book about how men handle shame. If you want to join in that conversation and get updates about the book, please fill out the form below!

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

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