You should be ashamed of yourself! Do you have no shame? That’s shameful! Such remarks can have devastating effects on a child’s mental health and may lead to him or her becoming a victim of toxic shame. Sania Nasir writes why society needs to be wary of this mental disease.

ittle did nine-year-old Ahsan know that failing an exam would lead to such drastic changes in his life. Soon after the results came in, verbal and physical assault from his father began. Besides the frequent hammering that he received for not performing in studies, he was also told how ashamed his parents were to have him as a child. Ahsan went from a happy little child to an extremely silent one. He lost interest in all he ever was interested in, became easily startled by the slightest of sounds and lost all his confidence. To make matters worse, his grades started dropping further. Ahsan was no longer the boy he once, only a living example of what toxic shaming does to a child.The term toxic shame was coined by Silvan Solomon Tomkins, a noted psychologist and personality theorist who developed both affect theory and script theory. In his affect theory, Tomkins discussed how toxic shame was different from healthy shame. Healthy shame is a scenario where a child feels guilty of doing something inappropriate, while toxic shame is an irrational feeling of worthlessness, humiliation, and self loathe that has been inflicted onto the child through repeated traumatic experiences.

While being ashamed over something a child did that was unacceptable usually passes away in a few hours or days, toxic shame tend to linger for much longer and if not addressed, may lead to greater mental health issues like chronic depression.The issue with toxic shaming is that unlike healthy shaming, it can creep into dark corners of our minds and hijack our beliefs about ourselves.Often times, it can hide in our unconscious mind in such a way that we are unaware that we have shame and the feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity in a person experiencing toxic shaming. Such is the potency of this mental disease that an external trigger isn’t even required to bring up that feeling of shame, a person’s own thoughts can bring on those feelings. If the cycle of shame continues, it sometimes leads to chronic “shame anxiety”, or the fear of experiencing shame.

 

What Toxic Shaming Does

The ultimate mental trap that a person or a child experiencing toxic shaming falls into is the belief that “I’m unlovable” or “not worthy of love”.Other feelings that toxic shaming induces include: I’m stupid, I’m unattractive, I’m a failure, I’m a bad person, I’m a fraud or a phony, I’m selfish, I’m not enough, I hate myself, I don’t matter, I’m defective, I shouldn’t have been born, and I’m unworthy of being loved.Parents can unintentionally lead a child towards a spiral of toxic shaming due to their irrational reactions to certain events. For an example in the case Ahsan, the child is was probably as disappointed as his parents over failing the exam and was in dire need of solace and encouragement. What he got instead was an utter unaffectionate behavior from his father, someone a child looks up to the most. That is exactly what a recipe for a child falling into the abyss of toxic shaming looks like, for the mind of that little boy would tell him: if your father can’t love you or console you, nobody else would. And that triggers a feeling of unworthiness.There are other sources of toxic shaming as well.

Healthy shame is a scenario where a child feels guilty of doing something inappropriate, while toxic shame is an irrational feeling of worthlessness, humiliation, and self loathe

Research suggests that toxic shame is mostly reinforced through childhood experiences and can be internalized through experiences at school with teachers, friends, or family members. It is also caused by the extreme focus of all kinds of abuses like physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. Psychologists believe toxic shaming is a syndrome that underpins large swathes of mental-health problems, from depression and anorexia, to violence and bullying. Thus, it is very vital for parents and teachers to explore and understand this phenomenon.

Teachers should not let children connect their mistakes, failures, and wrongdoings to their core identities

If a child is suffering from toxic shame, there will be several signs.According to mental health counselors, children who suffer from toxic shame have low self-esteem. They experience a feeling of chronic unworthiness. Besides, they frequently feel a sense of irrational guilt. They feel ashamed of their gender, body, and color complexions. In most cases, as a result of toxic shaming, children become drug addicts to escape and numb the shame. 

 

What Can Parents And Teachers Do?

Research argues that words and actions of an insensitive teacher can have a devastating impact on the children’s early educational experiences. Certain teaching classroom practices can increase shame in children. For instance, turning a student’s desk towards a wall or yelling demoralizing statements on a disruptive child. To eliminate toxic shaming in schools, teachers should model and teach with empathy. Moreover, teachers should teach children to dig into their emotional experiences. They should not let children connect their mistakes, failures, and wrongdoings to their core identities. Furthermore, teachers should allow children to have a say in classroom rules. Teachers and children can design and brainstorm the rules together so that there is a common understanding of consequences for certain behavior. They must practice vulnerability and make empathy the foundation for their teaching.As for parents, they must get it out of their heads that seeking professional help is an admission of failure. In our complex society with its myriad social problems, our children quite naturally face dilemmas that we never had to cope with during our childhood.

 The ultimate mental trap that a person or a child experiencing toxic shaming falls into is the belief that “I’m unlovable” or “not worthy of love”.

So if a child is suffering from toxic shame, parents must seek professional help. Moreover, most of the parents ineffectively try to encourage self-respect, self-care, and self-discipline with comments like ‘Do you have no shame, how can you act like that/ talk like that?’ Instead of shaming children, parents should treat their children with respect. They should commit to a shame-free environment at home and avoid character assaults. As Genevieve Simperinghem, founder of Peaceful Parent Institute in New Zealand, suggests, “We cannot completely protect our children from being shamed, but we can help them know that it’s not ok. When kids know that shaming isn’t ok, they will more likely feel free to put up a boundary when they feel shamed.”She adds, “To protect our children from shame, we need to face and resolve the shame we carry. Exploring how you felt as a child greatly helps to resolve and cleanse shame from your system while shining light on how shaming negatively impacts children in general.”

 

Sania Nasir is a student of MPhil Education at Sukkur IBA University. She has been involved in various education research projects and can be reached at sania.mphil18@iba-suk.edu.pk

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