Are you shaming your teen?
(+ how to communicate better)
Forgive me if I ruffle your feathers today, but chances are if you get ruffled by it, you probably needed to hear it.
We are going to talk about the delightful topic of shaming. I feel like the goddess that is Brené Brown writing that, but alas, I am no Dr Brown and nor am I here to rehash her teachings. Today we are specifically focusing on its impact on our teens based on what I have experienced through my work as a mentor and teacher, and how to avoid it in future. Why? Because it’s something I hear happening to teens all the time, and even though it often comes from someone who loves them very much and doesn’t mean to hurt them, it does a whole heap of damage that can take years to untangle.
What is shaming?
Put simply, you can identify shaming as targeted “you are…” type comments that are hurtful. For example, some key ones I hear from my gorgeous clients time and time again are classics such as…
- “Go and change! You look like a slut!”
- “You always [quit / give up / fail / etc]. You’ll never get anywhere in life”
- “You are useless”
- “Why did I ever think I could rely on you?”
- “Why can’t you be more like [your sibling / golden child next door / cousin / me]?”
- “You make me [behave a certain negative way] because you are so [insert something that the parent doesn’t like]”
- “You are so sensitive. Stop being a baby / stop crying”
… and so on. There are endless ways to shame someone, and no doubt you have also been on the receiving end of comments that caused you to question yourself and your self worth. Some stick around more than others, especially if we already have low self esteem or a vulnerability in a particular area. For a basic example, calling a child who has body image issues ‘fat’, tactlessly suggesting they need to eat less / exercise more, or change clothes because they don’t look good can have a long lasting impact. Extrapolate that across any area of life a teen could be measuring themselves up in – friendships, academics, sporting, artistic talent, anything really – and the scope for widespread damage from careless comments is massive. Shaming comments feed the inner critic and lead to a whole raft of things such as low self esteem, low confidence, poor behaviour choices, and even self harm. Think about it – it’s the classic bullying tactic, and we don’t want to behave like that to the people we love most in the world!
You are their greatest mentor
As a parent or guardian, you are automatically in the position of being your child’s greatest mentor. That means that even if your relationship is tense, you are the first person they look to in order to understand their place in the world, and what is right, wrong, acceptable and so on. That also adds a lot of weight to what you say to them. By the way, you can be an amazing parent and still do this, with absolutely no intention to cause harm – we’re all human! My goodness, I reckon I got incredibly lucky in the parent department (not biassed at all, but seriously, my parents are THE BEST and the biggest support crew a girl could ask for) yet I can still recall a few painful comments that have stuck with me and left little wounds. It’s going to happen! I might not have been an angel and so words were exchanged, or they might have been worried for me and made a comment that I took to heart. But when it’s happening a lot, or it’s happening because you are trying to change something about your child, or speaking without any awareness, and without addressing it later, that’s when you need to really start paying attention to making a change.
What you can do
Other than practice avoiding making these comments at all (ok I know I said I wasn’t going to, but have to drop this one in there… Brené Brown bans “you are” statements in the house) what else can you do to manage this, especially if you’ve identified that perhaps you’ve used this kind of talk in the past?
First of all, become aware of what you are saying, especially when you’re in a heated / disappointed / emotional moment. So often these statements come from a place of fear. Of course we want our children to be safe, well educated, successful, spending time with good people, talented and so on, but laying on “you are” statements is not the way to help guide them there (in fact, I’ve found it often sends them down the opposite route). Notice if and when you are more prone to speaking like this and see if you can catch yourself before it happens. Ask yourself how you can rephrase what you are wanting to say in a way that avoids shaming your child. Sometimes taking some time out from the situation is needed to find clarity.
Secondly, when you inevitably mess up because you are a human being, apologise. It might not be in the moment, but please, as soon as you can, revisit your comment with your child. Talk to them about why you know that it isn’t true, and explain where the comment came from (a place of fear for example). Helping your child see why it isn’t true helps them to push back on the statement when it becomes part of their critical inner thought reel. You also might find that if they are using these statements with you, they become less frequent as you model a more productive way to communicate.
It’s ok to make mistakes, but what’s not ok is to keep making them when you know better. Let’s reduce the shaming language and help kids be less critical of themselves. Ps this also works with everyone else in your life regardless of age! Good luck, this is so worth it, and I believe in you!
Bec is the human behind Rebel Starseeds. She loves being outside, avocados and anything to do with the ocean. She also likes to write a lot, especially about things to do with wellbeing for girls + women, in the hope that she can find help others empowerment and joy from within themselves with a little reconnection, rewilding and rebelling (where necessary!)
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