Why Shaming Your Children For Bad Behavior Isn’t Working!

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

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Chances are, you already know this. So do we. But for some reason, we continue to resort to shaming, thinking we'll see different results. We won't. More importantly, we're causing deeper damage when we do so.

I get it. I fully understand how we can promise not to anymore, only to slip back into it when our kiddo blows it, and doesn’t seem to care or show emotion. Can I just put your mind at ease with that? I personally struggle with this too. You’re not alone. If nothing else, let the “Me too” of what I just said wash over you like warm water. Considering the fact that you and I are often pushed to the absolute edge (or beyond) by our children’s disorders, attachment issues, severe trauma, or impulsive choices, it makes sense why we would resort to shaming.

Even as I write this, I replay a few instances from this past month with my children. I also replay the look on their faces and their “flight” reaction to me (which is enough for me to choose to change!). I’m in this trench with you my friend. But I have to tell you….out of the 15 years I’ve been a parent, and the times I’ve screwed up on this journey (which almost outnumbers the stars in the sky…almost), I’ve come to a harsh realization:

Shaming doesn’t work!

More than that, shaming is damaging. In my early years, I thought this was the way you got through to your children. I thought the response was what I needed to know that I was on the right track. That was before I had kids though. And that was especially before I became the parent of children from traumatic places. Now, as we work to navigate the twisty, winding road of trauma I’m convinced…this just doesn’t work.

Then, Why Do We Do It?

For two reasons really. First, it was the way some of us were raised. Our parent’s shamed us when we screwed up, because their parent’s shamed them, and their parents before that shamed them. It’s generational. And, perhaps for a generation it worked (although I seriously doubt it). We also do it because we want a reaction.

…A reaction means we’re getting through!

…A reaction means they’re connecting the dots!

…A reaction means they’re sorry for what they’ve done!

Or does it?

I remember hearing the words from my first grade teacher…. “Michael, shame on you!” They still ring in my head more than 34 years later. I can close my eyes and see the cross expression on her face. I see her pointed finger aimed at my nose like a loaded gun. I feel the deep, cold echo of her words as she scolds me in front of my peers. I see my little blonde head nod as she demands to know if I understand my wrongdoing. She’s satisfied with my nod and subsequent tears. I keep my eyes closed for a while longer and envision it as if it were yesterday. Then I remember…

Her words weren’t getting through….I wasn’t connecting the dots…and I surely wasn’t sorry for what I had done.

I was nodding (and eventually crying) for one reason: To get her to stop! I was humiliated. I just wanted to run away. And I hadn’t come from a place of trauma. It makes me realize how much more damaging this is for our children.

If Not Shame, Then What?

Again, let me reassure you….I get it. I’ve been there. My kid has driven me to the point of total exhaustion by his choices, attitude, and behavior. Because of this, I have a tendency to shame. Yes, they make choices that we wish they wouldn’t. Yes, they push buttons repeatedly. Yes, they steal, hoard, lie, and manipulate. But there’s a reason for all of this…and shaming isn’t the answer. So then, what is?

Before we unpack the choices, the behavior, the attitude, or the defiance, we need to ask a bigger question. That question is simply, “Why?” Why does my child do the things she does? Why does he steal stuff? Why does she hide food under her bed? Why does he stuff pee-soaked pull-ups in the back of his closet instead of throwing them away? Why does he convince the teacher he doesn’t get enough food at home? Why does he push buttons? When we answer the why, we can begin to understand the how.

When we resort to shaming, we tell our children they’re not good enough for anything positive.

The why is trauma. The why is a dark memory that plays on repeat in their minds. It’s a place that you and I know nothing about. Shaming only thrusts them deeper into this place. When we resort to shaming, we tell our children they’re not good enough for anything positive. We communicate to them that they’ll never be better than their mistakes. So how do we guide, even discipline when necessary, a child who’s trauma prevents them from understanding the weight of their behavior? There are two ways…

  1. Showing verses Shaming. This has many facets, but the first, and most important, is to show the positive. Second, show what appropriate behavior looks like. Show the cupboard where you keep food. Show them it’s never locked and there’s always enough to eat. Show them where wet laundry goes and remind them it’s okay if they have an accident. They won’t be in trouble. There are washing machines for this. Remember, their fear from the past is telling them they’re going to be in big trouble. Show them otherwise.
  2. Conversation verses Consequence. One of the things I struggle with is jumping to consequence. My child screws up, BOOM…consequence! In doing this, I communicate that they’re bad. And I neglect an big opportunity to lead my child through their fear. Their choice may still warrant a consequence, but consequence should never precede conversation. And if they need a consequence, say it, and don’t lecture or continue to reiterate it day after day. A gentle reminder if they forget will do. Stay calm…and be firm.

I have a friend who’s child routinely leaves her pee-soaked underwear stuffed in the back of her closet. Recently, out of his frustration, he decided he was going to make her do all of her own laundry as punishment. Seems logical. Seems like a fair consequence. But then he realized something- she’s behaving this way out of a deep fear that lingers in her mind from past trauma. It’s a place he knows nothing about. Because of this, he changed course. Instead of shaming, guilting, and enforcing a consequence, he entered into a conversation with her. Then, in an act of grace, he took her to the store and let her pick out new underwear.

This precious child, who spends most of her days acting out of fear and flight, saw light in her darkness. Her father is showing her she’s good enough. She’s worthy. She’s loved in-spite of anything she went through in the past.

Have you struggled with this subject? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.