My children’s mental health is very important to me. ‘Cause there’s nothing more shameful than a mental health professional with whacked out kids. Tongues wag behind your back and colleagues wonder about your professional skills if you can’t even get your kids right. Kidding! Of course the reason my children’s mental health is important is because, well, they’re my kids, and I love them and want them to be happy and well-adjusted with good coping skills and resilience. What does this mean exactly?
I want my kids to have a good, solid sense of self. I don’t want them to go through years of pain and inner turmoil to finally be comfortable in their own skin. I want to minimize their self-destruction. I don’t want them to lose years of their lives not believing in themselves. So it breaks my heart when I hear my children mournfully proclaiming “I’m a bad girl…” or “I’m a bad boy…”
Brene Brown, PhD, distinguishes between guilt and shame as this:
Guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad.”
Guilt is “I made a mistake.” Shame is “I am a mistake.”
My kids usually end up in this place of Shame after they’ve been caught post-misdeed: lying, hitting a sibling, or exhibiting some other undesirable behavior. I talk with them about how we are not our actions–the action may be bad or wrong, but we are not bad. We are human, and we make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from the mistake (Guilt) and to make amends.
So here’s the deal. The bulk of my psychotherapy patients have been adults for a reason. I can TALK to them. Kids: doesn’t work so well–for me or for them. But I keep trying, I’m nothing if not persistent. So I talk a great deal with my kids about how they’re good people, and their behavior was not nice or desirable–it’s not OK to hurt people with their hands or their words, and it’s not OK to lie. But they’re still good people. They haven’t internalized this yet. They fall down the Shame Hole quickly and their sense of unworthiness is unshakeable.
She loses her water bottle at camp and lies about it, consumed two-fold in shame for not being responsible and for lying. This manifests in a temper tantrum, which adds a third layer of shame. And then comes the slumped shoulders and quiet sobs that she’s a bad girl…This happens in the blink of an eye.
He gets frustrated at something he deems as unfair and lashes out at me. I let him know his approach is not acceptable. Storm clouds appear above his head as he stomps and grunts and yells and hurls things–both objects and hateful words. He is bathed in shame over his dramatic responses. And then the furrowed brow as he can’t make eye contact and proclaims he’s a bad boy…Less than a minute and he’s down the rabbit hole called Shame.
So I’ll keep talking about this, about how no one’s perfect and we’re still all worthy in our imperfections. About how we are not our behaviors. And I’ve also realized these conversations can’t be about the water bottle. Or screaming at me in frustration. Do I want to raise responsible, respectful, honest human beings? Yes, of course. But see, if I focus on the water bottle, the screaming, or the lies about eating candy before dinner, or shoving a sibling in frustration, or whatever the content of the behavior is–if I focus on that, I lose the kid.
I used to implore my daughter to please remember where she placed that water bottle. Please do not lie–lying is worse than the misdeed. Son, please do not throw things. Please do not talk to me in that tone of voice. I tried to focus on the content to raise proper human beings. But I’m losing them. Let’s be honest, anyone who knows me knows my kids won’t be lying, stealing thugs. I’m realizing late in the game that I’ve chosen the wrong battle.
I need to focus on the actual shame that consumes the child. I need this child to know I HEAR her. I need this child to know I SEE him. Hold her feeling of inadequacy that she’s lost the 5th water bottle in one week despite her best efforts. Acknowledge his pain that he can’t hold his shit together for a more measured response, sit with him in his embarrassment that he isn’t coping well with frustration. I need to be with them in that place–when they feel I can see and hear and validate who they are, when I connect with them–that is when they are reminded they are worthy.
Connecting–it’s the glue that holds us all together. To feel connected with others, to something larger than us. It’s about kindness and empathy and love and belonging and worthiness. It will ultimately be this connection, this feeling seen and heard, this validation, this worthiness that will help my children climb out of the Shame Hole, minimize the times they jump down that hole, and subsequent time spent down in the dark recesses of Shame. I don’t want that water bottle. I want my kids.