How Parents Use Their Children To Avoid Feeling Shame

Jul 20, 2022

Dear Souls & Hearts Community,

There is one primary, fundamental reason in the natural realm that impels parents to unwittingly mistreat their children.  There are other causes, but none is so powerful as this one.

And it may not be what you think.  It’s not primarily anger or depression or a need to control or self-absorption or demands for (near) perfection – those all factor in, but they are further down the chain, they are responses to the primary reason, not the single underlying major cause.  So what is the cause?

Shame.

When I peel back the layers of symptoms and secondary effects in troubled families, at the very bottom of it all, I usually find parental shame. Unresolved parental shame is the primary driver of so much tension, conflict, anger, withdrawal, depression – of so much dysfunction in families.

The shame is deeply buried in the psyches of the father and mother, generated by trauma and never adequately resolved. 

Parents will go to great lengths to avoid being overwhelmed by their hidden, unacknowledged shame.  And children have so many ways of unknowingly and unwittingly tapping into parents’ shame and activating parents’ defenses against shame.

How do children unintentionally trigger and exacerbate parents’ shame?

  1. By being little and expressing the normal needs for affection, nurturance and love that kids naturally have. The child’s needs can resonate with the parent’s same unmet attachment needs, which can feel very threatening to the parent.  For example, a preschooler who is crying because of needs to be seen, heard and comforted after falling off a trike and getting scraped up could elicit the same unmet needs in his father – needs the father finds shameful and unmanly in himself -- leading to an anger response.  “Crying about that?  That’s nothing.  Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”  The father’s anger arises as a way to defend against the shame about his own unmet needs and how he was (and is) so often not seen and heard and comforted when he was (and is) scared and hurt. 
  2. By acting in ways that parents think reflect badly on them in the eyes of the world. Sometimes I see little children sitting stock still in Mass for 60 minutes with their parents, never fidgeting or wiggling around, but being “very good” – and my heart sinks when others compliment those parents.  I think of cost of that level of control – were they told that God is displeased with children who move around in the pew during Mass?  Parents with unresolved shame are destabilized by others’ negative opinions about their parenting.  Real or perceived criticism from other activates shame, so some parents will overcontrol their children’s behavior – not for the child’s good, but to ward off threats to their own fragile self-esteem. 
  3. By unwittingly revealing their parents’ flaws, faults and limitations to the parents themselves. Look, let’s be real here, parenting well is very difficult.  There are so many ways to get things wrong and so much learning by trial and error.  Kids unintentionally and unknowingly hold up a mirror to their parents – their parents seem themselves acting out in ways that lead to a sense of guilt.  The message of guilt is that “I’ve done something bad.”  If shame due to unresolved trauma is then activated, the message changes to “I am bad (or worthless, or inadequate, or defective or stupid or some other global self-condemnation of me as a person).” 

When parents have unresolved shame and that shame is in danger of being activated, it is so hard for them to see their children.  They move away from connection into self-protection.  Their capacity to love becomes so compromised, as I discussed at length in my recent podcast episode Trauma's Devastating Impact on our Capacity to Love.

Four days ago, another shooting took place in a mall not far from my home, a place where we occasionally shop.  I don’t know the shooter or his motives, but I wonder if these shootings might be a tremendously distorted and twisted attempt to finally be seen and heard, to capture the attention of many, to be noticed, even if just for a moment, and even at the great cost of human lives lost.  To have attachment needs met.  How many people in our world are starving for basic attachment needs to be met?  How many are so alienated, so disconnected from love and attention?

This is not to wave some sort of psychological wand and absolve shooters of moral culpability.  There is sin here.  I don’t doubt that.  But, in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas, I see sin as misguided and maladaptive attempt to pursue a perceived good.

One gift from a parent to a child…

If there is one gift in the natural realm (I’m not talking about spiritual gifts here, like Baptism) that I wish that each and every parent would give their children – it is the resolution of parental shame.  It would be for each mother to really do her healing and her human formation work.  It would be for each father to resolve the unresolved trauma and experience an ordered self-love.  For mothers and fathers to seek and find the help they need to become much more resilient.

It’s a rare and beautiful thing for a child to be raised by parents who are relatively free from the burdens of disordered shame.  And that is a gift that keeps giving through generations. Just like the controlling, angry, detaching and other behaviors impelled by parental shame pass on the burden of shame from parents to children – a shame that becomes intergenerational, passed on through the family tree – dealing with shame becomes so “normal” that children don’t know what healthy relating and ordered self-love are – they think it’s normal for them to have to protect their parents from their parents’ own shame.  Shame over not feeling safe and secure.  Shame over not being seen, heard, known and understood.  Shame perpetuated from parents to children.

Our culture and our Church need parents who are willing to break the intergenerational cycle of shame.  Who are willing to stand up and say yes to their own healing and human formation.  And you don’t have to do that alone.

Souls and Hearts provides all kinds of resources to help you overcome shame and its effects through supporting your process of human formation.  Check out our resource page here, and you can download a PDF with descriptions and links to my 13-part podcast series on shame (episodes 37 to 49 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast) to learn so much more.

And there is hope…

Some parents shy away from really looking at their parenting for fear of what it might imply for their children’s well-being – they are afraid of what they will find if they really seek to understand the impact of their parenting on their children.

It’s important for Catholics to remember that before time began, God knew every mistake and every failing we would ever have as parents – and He still chose you to have the children you have.   He only allows evil to happen through his permissive will so that He can draw greater good from it.  Romans 8:28 still applies – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  “All things” includes any parental mistakes, sins, faults, failings, inadequacies.  God has a plan for the children to be able to profit from these in a way that allow for greater good than if they had had perfect parents.

Remembering who are our primary parents…

And let’s also remember who the primary parents are for each of us – our spiritual parents, God the Father and Mary our Mother.  They are our first parents.  Our natural parents, our earthly parents are secondary parents.  Earthly fathers and mothers are not supposed to be able to meet all the needs of their children for good parenting – God reserves meeting many of those parental needs for Himself and for Mary.  And when God allows a child to be raised in an abusive and neglectful home, with parents who don’t provide for the attachment needs and the love that a child deserves, He has a plan.  And that plan includes an abundance of graces available to the child, if the child will receive them.  If the child will say yes, and have some trust and confidence in God.  Nothing is hopeless unless one abandons hope.

Souls and Hearts is looking for a marketing person

As you know, Souls and Hearts, our online outreach provides the best of psychology and human formation, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person to the world via the Internet.  We have podcasts, courses, communities, blogs, and other resources, most of which are free.

We have made the transition from being a startup into an established organization, and we are getting more serious about our marketing outreach efforts. We have about 2,500 members on our email list and about 1,000 visits per day to our website. I'm seeking a college marketing major who might be interested in coordinating our marketing efforts, to work closely with me and the rest of our team. This might be an independent study or possibly an internship which could grow into an ongoing consulting position, or hiring.

Ideally, we are looking for someone who is already personally and passionately invested in Souls and Hearts' mission and vision. Let me know if you know of someone who would be interested in discussing this any further. We are very invested in our staff, and I would be strongly committed to the professional formation of any student who wanted to sign on. I think it might be an excellent opportunity for a marketing major to direct our marketing efforts.  My email is  [email protected] and my cell is 317.567.9594.   We don’t have the budget for a professional marketing agency at this point.

Thanks for reading this.  Know that all of you who read my weekly reflections are in my prayers.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S:  As always, please forward this to anyone you think might benefit from it.  And you are welcome to reach out to me via email at [email protected] with any feedback.  Also, feel free to call my cell on Tuesdays or Thursdays from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time for my conversation hours to discuss anything in my weekly reflections or podcast.  You can sign up here to have these weekly reflections emailed directly to your inbox every Wednesday.  And you can read my reflections from past weeks archived on our blog

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