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Parental Shame and Child Behavior Problems

February 26, 2016

Life is challenging enough when dealing with child behavior problems. It is worse when we worry about how we appear to others in view of our child’s behavior. Indeed, we can feel shame – as if to say there is something wrong with me for my child having these problems. That sense of shame can be the byproduct of blame.

I remember a situation years ago when a family was referred for family therapy. Their 10-year-old son would act out at school. He wasn’t thought to have a learning problem. It was thought that the parents didn’t know how to parent. However, the parents had no particular complaint about the child. He was well-behaved at home.

I met with the family and within 20 minutes of hearing the parents’ explanation of the behavior issues at school, I was of the impression that their lad had an undiagnosed auditory processing disorder.

The parents were amazed that I could figure that out within 20 minutes of our meeting and didn’t quite believe me because of it. They had the boy tested and sure enough, he had an auditory processing disorder. This is a problem that is more apparent in a noisy classroom or at recess/lunch situations, consistent with when the lad acted up.

In any case, this family, these parents, were made to feel bad with the view there was something wrong with them. They experienced shame, the result of blame. While they were embarrassed to see me for family therapy, the experience proved quite fruitful and helpful. Accommodations were eventually made at school and behavior settled. Parental shame disappeared.

In another situation, a parent who grew up in a family where the father meted out severe corporal punishment, felt she couldn’t at all discipline their 5-year-old son, lest she see herself as an abusive parent like her father. This mother realized that her inability to hold their son accountable was contributing to the boy’s misbehavior, but she was at a loss to know what to do. This caused her to feel guilty – a feeling bad about herself for contributing to the problem. Out of her guilt, she also worried about how she was perceived by others and so she also felt shame. Learning reasonable and non-abusive parenting strategies improved the child’s behavior and empowered the parent thus eliminating that sense of shame.

Shame is a very powerful emotion that grips many parents whose children surface with behavior problems. It is not uncommon that to protect oneself from that sense of shame, a parent will back away from getting help or admit to any issue that they may actually have. Here, a parent may feel the need to protect oneself from feeling worse about themselves. Unfortunately though, that also keeps the parent and child from receiving the help they may need to improve matters.

As therapists, counselors, teacher, social workers, helpers, it is important to know that parents are people too and that causing them to feel bad or worse about their child’s issues is never helpful. In my experience, most parents already beat themselves up for problems associated with child behavior problems. However, I think most of us in the helping professions already know this and act reasonably. Perhaps a few others would do well to remember this though.

If you are the parent of a child with behavior problems who may not be accessing help because of a sense of blame or shame, I can only encourage you to still seek support. If by chance you already have sought help and the service provider has caused you to feel bad about yourself, then consider raising that with your service provider or seek help elsewhere.

Without having to be religious, there is an expression that is still befitting here: Where, but for the grace of God, go I?

It does us all well to reflect on our experience and the experience of others and remember; we too can and likely will be touched by some life challenge. No one is exempt from the human condition. Hopefully we can own our challenges and be supportive of those who challenges intersect with our own lives. We don’t need to feel bad for matters we have yet to overcome and we should not be caused to feel bad either.

With that perhaps shame can dissipate and things can improve.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.  It would be my pleasure to be of service if you are grappling with a child behavior problem or any other relationship issue for that matter.

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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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