Chris* will always remember his childhood experience with broccoli. Since he was young, he had always had a distinct dislike for that green vegetable. Perhaps it was the softness of the florets or the peculiar shade of green. Whatever the reason, he had never liked the vegetable, and had always avoided it when his parents gave it to him. When he was three, his parents divorced and his father remarried, and Chris went to live with his stepmother. That change in his life all but sealed his experience with broccoli.
Twenty years later, in the comfort of the counselling room, Chris shared with me that his stepmother took it upon herself to “cure” his disdain for broccoli and all things green. Whenever Chris refused to eat his vegetables, she would scold him in a loud voice, and if he still persisted, she would carry his high chair (with him in it), and place him outside the main door. There he would sit until he either finished his vegetables, or if he got so tired that he fell asleep in his high chair without finishing his food.
“It was the worst period of my life,” he recounted.
Over time, he began to move from a sense of guilt, which told him that “I did something wrong”, to a sense of shame, which insisted that “I am something wrong”.
According to American educator and author John Bradshaw, every child has feelings, needs and desires, and that if a parent cannot affirm these aspects of a child, he or she rejects the child’s “authentic self”. In his seminal book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You”, he talks about the impact of a parent’s rejection on a child, especially if this leads to shame. According to Bradshaw, shaming makes the child believe that he or she is wrong for feeling, desiring or needing something.
In Chris’ case, the stepmother was rejecting his feelings of disdain for broccoli. By first scolding him, and then carrying the high chair outside the house, his stepmother was entrenching the notion that it is wrong to feel disdain.
This was buttressed by the deeper feelings of rejection that Chris might have felt by other onlookers who passed by the house. Over time, he began to move from a sense of guilt, which told him that “I did something wrong”, to a sense of shame, which insisted that “I am something wrong”.
Bradshaw calls this the shame identity; according to him, individuals who have been shamed on numerous occasions take on a persona of worthlessness and defectiveness.
Does this mean that we should stop scolding our children entirely? Especially since it would seem that scolding our children could lead to the development of a shame identity?
As a parent, a number of principles have guided the way I discipline my children:
- Establishing Loving Boundaries
A friend once shared with me the concept that children are “persons-in-training”. I like this perspective very much and have adopted this paradigm when I guide my kids. Based on this view that my children are still-developing and ever-learning individuals, I work hard to establish clear and loving boundaries regarding is allowed or not allowed in my household.
For instance, screen-time is kept constant each day, and my 10 and 8-year-old sons are allowed no more than half an hour each in the afternoons after they finish their homework.
The boys are aware of this rule and while they may ask for more screen-time, they know that our stance on this is clear; they will not get any additional time, even if they beg, persuade or cajole us.
Through this process, the children learn the importance of boundaries; that they are there to keep the bad out and keep the good in.
- Seeking to Understand
Children act up for a reason, and oftentimes it stems from their basic needs – they could be hungry, thirsty, tired, or emotionally overwhelmed. When we understand the reason why they throw a tantrum, we can anticipate and manage the situation better. For instance, large party gatherings could be a sensorial nightmare for the kids, and while they may enjoy the excitement of being in a crowd of friends, the environment might cause them to get emotionally overwhelmed.
As such, leaving the gathering just a little earlier (or later) could help to reduce the likelihood of any potential tantrum. Understanding leads to empathy, and we are then less likely to get upset with our children when we know that they are not misbehaving on purpose, but are instead communicating a physical or emotional need.
- Removing and Replacing
We often share in our workshops that one way of managing our children’s emotions is to remove the negative behaviour and replace it with an action that is more socially acceptable. For instance, if the child is likely to hit another person when he or she is feeling anxious or stressed, it might be helpful to provide a tactile fidget that serves as a replacement object for the child to express his or her emotions.
Using such a replacement strategy, we can change our children’s negative behaviours to more acceptable ones.
It has taken many months of counselling to help Chris deal with the numerous issues associated with scolding and toxic shame. Over time he has learnt to deal with the years of pain that he had experienced through his difficult family situation.
But till today, he still refuses to eat broccoli.
*The names and identities in this article have been changed to protect their confidentiality.
© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 10 and 8.
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