Just the other day my youngest son ran up the stairs with tears streaming down his cheeks. I quickly paused what I was doing, then invited him on my lap to share what was going on.
With his bottom lip quivering, he said, “Brother is being mean to me and calling me names!” as he snuggled into my shoulder. I felt some sadness for the weeping child on my lap, so I attuned with his big emotions and comforted him. I began to notice anger and disgust rise towards my older son. “He knows better. Why is he being so mean again?” I think to myself. Feeling my relational circuits begin to fade, I take a few deep breaths to calm down. Once my relational brain is online again, I give my young son a few more snuggles then search for the instigator.
Then I locate my older son. I ask with a sad tone, “Why are you calling your brother names again? We have talked about this, and it sounds like you are being mean. How would you feel if he said these things to you?” Initially, my son is defensive, and then he agrees to apologize and repair with his little brother. I hug him and remind him that I love him, even when he is unkind. I then say, “We will continue to work on this behavior because it’s not a good reflection of your heart.”
Does this episode sound familiar to you? How do you handle it when one of your children acts out in a way that is not acceptable?
I recently had the privilege of reading a pre-release copy of Dr. Jim Wilder’s new book, The Pandora Problem (see Jim’s recent article on this). Here is an excellent resource on identifying and dealing with narcissism in ourselves and with people in our community. Narcissism is a response that develops when we cannot receive a shame message. One idea that strongly impressed me from this book was the role of healthy shame.
Dr. Wilder talks about the importance of giving and receiving healthy shame messages for our families and communities. Ideally, we receive healthy shame messages to correct behaviors that are not producing joy. Giving and receiving healthy shame messages should bring us together. Dr. Wilder clarifies that healthy shame brings redemptive correction, so we learn something valuable, while toxic shame has no useful value. It is simply not redemptive. Toxic shame produces lies and distortions about our identities. Toxic shame says, “You are bad!” instead of, “This behavior is bad.” The significance of healthy shame brought some critical insights into my parenting style.
I can see how giving relational shame messages is an integral part of parenting my sons. I have given my boys opportunities to correct their behavior by conveying, “I am not glad to be with you right now because of your behavior.” However, I don’t leave my children swimming in their shame as this would be very painful for them and teach them shame is undesirable.
Rather, I actively help my sons recover from the shame they are feeling to ensure their brain’s emotional control center forges a pathway back to joy. I aim to remain relational while my sons feel and quiet the brain’s distress signal that says, “I am not bringing joy; there is something important to learn here!” After reading Jim’s book, I realized the missing ingredient from my healthy shame interactions is the concept of identity.
Dr. Wilder’s definition of a healthy shame message includes two important steps. First is the message, “We do not (fill in the blank with behavior)” followed by a statement saying who we are, “We (fill in the blank with a Christ-like character response).” So, when one of my sons teases the other to the point of tears, I would say, “Son, we do not say mean things to make people sad. We are kind with our words.”
For me, the profound part of this equation is how the process hinges on identity.
To share a healthy shame message in this way, I am identifying how my son’s behavior does not line up with who God made him to be.
I am calling him into his identity as a child of God. It also reminds me that all of us stray from who God created us to be. We forget who we are. We all fail to act in ways that reflect Jesus, which helps me have more patience with my son as I help him discover his identity. Together, we address deformities (Scripture calls this iniquity), and we stay tender where there are weakness and pain. (1) In a sense, I am inviting my sons to express their true selves which is also a reflection of our faith and values.
For the past few weeks, I have been applying this new and revised version of healthy shame when my sons’ behavior needs a tune-up. I have observed some changes. First, I notice my children better receive the healthy shame message. The process not only points out the problem, but it calls them to act out of their true identity as a Christ-follower. Second, I find it is easier for me to remain in a relational mode when sharing a healthy shame message because my focus is on who my children are (identity) opposed to their malfunctions (bad behavior).
In all honesty, I wish I could say I have been doing this perfectly every time my children disobey or act out. There are still times I become angry about the poor behavior, and I plunge out of relational mode. I can even now forget to calm myself and restart my relational circuits before I interact with my children. When this happens, I am not satisfied with how I deal with the interaction. So, having a clearer picture of how I want to handle moments my children misbehave is a significant first step. Thankfully, all of us can extend some much-needed grace to ourselves and each other when we do not live up to our standards and goals. We can repair with our children when interactions go south.
Where can you give healthy shame messages to the people you love? Are Christ-like character traits prioritized in your family? What values make up the family identity you want to express in yourself and call out in other people? These are good starting points for what may end up being an incredibly valuable gift you share with your family and community.
Dr. Jim Wilder’s new book, The Pandora Problem, is now available for presale! You will want extra copies to give away. Learn more about this concept with the insightful JIMTalks by Dr. Jim Wilder and his new book, The Pandora Problem.1