Helping my adopted child with shame

Shame is a common struggle for anyone who has experienced trauma, and that includes the care-experienced and adopted child. An overwhelming feeling of shame can lead to struggles with self-worth, self-esteem and depression. Trying to avoid the feeling of shame can lead to all sorts of unhelpful behaviours, such as, lying, substance misuse, and extreme risk-taking behaviours. Helping your adopted child deal with shame will help them in a whole heap of different areas, and enable them to live happier, more fulfilled lives.

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Image of kid covering his face and text reading, Discipline without Shame

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In our house, we try to tackle shame by encouraging a ‘learning culture’.

We are all on our own learning journey in life (a little hippy maybe, but stay with me!). We chat with our kids when they make mistakes, when we make mistakes and when someone at school does something unkind, and we explore the idea that we are all working on something. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and their weaknesses are the things they are working on.

It really helps build empathy for other people, but also empathy for ourselves. I’ll give you an example of my little boy applying this concept. He had got really cross one day and hit his dad. After running to find me and having a cuddle to regulate, he asked me to help him say sorry, and then piped up, ‘I am still learning not to hit, Mummy’. I was able to encourage him that we have seen progress in this area and we are so proud of him for practicing. He will learn, but learning takes time and that’s ok. (Just in case you’re thinking my kids a dream to parent, let me reassure you it’s taken a while to get to this point and our chats do not always go this well!)

Now, my kids are 6 and 3, so if you have older children or teens, you might need to change the language slightly when talking to them about this, but I believe the concept remains useful. In fact, I have actually found it helpful for myself sometimes!

One of the reasons I like using a ‘learning culture’ when tackling shame, is because it reframes our mistakes.

Instead of focussing on the thing we have done wrong, and allowing that to affect our view of our self, we are focusing on what we can learn from it. We are having empathy for ourselves and learning to forgive ourselves for making a mistake and being human! At an appropriate time, which for some is a few hours or a day later, we will brainstorm together what we could do differently next time.

If focussing on ourselves is too hard at this point, we can begin by reading stories about other children who make mistakes, and practice having empathy for them, not passing judgement and brainstorming what they could do differently next time. This is probably a good time to mention that we avoid using the words ‘bad’ about characters in books or on tv, just like we don’t use that word about our kids. The person is not bad, it’s the behaviour that was not helpful, and we try to be specific about the behaviour. Instead of calling a behaviour ‘bad’, I would say it was ‘not kind’, ‘not good listening’ or ‘not gentle’ for example. When we talk about next time, we talk about how we can remember to be kind, do good listening, be gentle, be considerate, etc. We focus on the positive behaviour we would like to replace the negative.

Another thing we do, when tackling shame, and to build self-esteem, is to talk about our progress.

In a quiet, relaxed moment, like a car ride, bring up a time recently where you noticed progress in them. Recently, my son was hit by his sister and remained calm and didn’t hit her back. We told him how proud we were that he kept himself calm, and reminded him of how far he had come. This helps to remind our kids, and ourselves, that they have the ability to change, learn and grow. They have done it before and can do it again. It also helps raise their self-esteem and confidence in themselves, as well as their self-image as someone who does kind things.

In tackling shame, I also feel it’s SO important to normalise making mistakes.

Our kids can often believe that one mistake is the end of the world. Or that one bad action makes them a bad person. It is so important for them to view making mistakes and getting things wrong as a normal part of being human. We all do it. As parents it’s our job to model vulnerability and admit when we make a mistake and get things wrong. Imagine living with a perfect person and how impossible that would be to live up to. Don’t make your kids think you never make mistakes and it’s just them who mess up. Be honest with them, tell them when you make a mistake, apologise and model how to put things right and repair the relationship. As much as we sometimes wish it weren’t true, we all know kids learn way more from watching what we do, than from listening to what we tell them to do!

When tackling shame, look for your kid’s triggers, and try to be aware what sets them off so you can help them, before things escalate.

Help them to succeed, especially if successes are few and far between. If I hear my kids arguing in another room and it’s getting louder and louder, I can be fairly certain that if I don’t step in, then someone will get physically hurt. I try not to make the decisions for them, especially as they get older, but instead help them to each listen to the others point of view and come to a joint agreement, based on what they think is fair. Of course, I do not get this right all the time!

Lastly, I believe it’s important to model putting things right and repairing relationships.

Putting things right gives us closure on an incident and allows us to move on. In the early days, my son would no sooner have apologised to my husband, or myself, for hitting, before he was back doing it again, for no apparent reason. We eventually realised that until he had apologised, been verbally forgiven with eye contact, hugged and told I love you, then the relationship was still broken in his eyes. Hitting was his way of communicating that. For some kids, especially little ones, they might need a specific routine or sentence to know that it’s done and they can move on.

We know ourselves, when we have upset a friend that we feel immensely better when we have done something to try to make amends. This could be apologise, fix or buy a replacement if something got broken, make ‘I’m sorry’ cookies, etc. The main thing is you are not making your kids feel bad about what they have done. They already do (although they may not tell you or show it!). You are trying to get them to see you as a helper, someone who they can come to when they make a mistake, and be free from judgement and further shame. Together, you can both try to put things right again and brainstorm ideas together. Then it is up to them to decide what they want to do.

Modelling how to repair relationships can help normalise it for our kids.

Be as open and honest as you are able to and admit your own mistakes and show them how you put things right. It can sometimes be helpful to talk through how you feel at each stage. E.g. “I feel really bad that I shouted at you, I felt so cross and it’s ok to feel cross sometimes, but I should not have shouted. That was not kind and I am sorry. Can you forgive me?” and then  “Oh I feel so much better now we have made up, it’s like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. It makes me happy when we get along.” 

It doesn’t just have to be with the kids, you can model apologising to your partner in front of your kids, if you have said something unkind to them for example. If you have a falling out with your friend or parent, you can explain to your kid or even ask their help with an ‘I’m sorry’ gesture or gift. I think we underestimate how powerful our modelling can be.

Helping my adopted child with shame takes time.

Lots of time. However, it can be done, little by little, and it is so worth it when you begin to see the positive effects for your kids and your family. These are just a few ideas that I have found to work for my family. I hope they help you too. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide for helping your adopted child with shame, then check out the book The Simple Guide to Understanding Shame in Children, on Amazon. If you want some more advice about lying in particular, then take a look at How to stop my kid lying to me.

You’ve got this!