Sitting on the couch in my office, Alicia looks pensive as she says, “I grew up feeling ashamed of my parent’s divorce and somehow believed I caused it because I wasn’t a good enough kid. Plus, my mom would often tell me that I reminded her of my dad when she was angry at me. I don’t want my daughter Karina to feel this way.”
Parents often ask me how they can help their children adjust to their divorce. They are usually hoping for quick tips that don’t involve too much introspection. On the other hand, since I’ve counseled so many children of divorce (and adults who were raised in a divorced family), I tell them that my solutions are not a quick fix but effective.
Divorce Shame in Children
The first step is awareness. In fact, it’s essential that parents like Alicia understand that feelings of shame are a common experience for children of divorce because they are trying to make sense of the reasons why their parents split. Since children tend to be egocentric, the first person they point their finger at is themselves.
For example, Karina, age twelve, was nine years old when her dad moved out suddenly after an argument with her mom, Alicia. The disagreement was about their cluttered home. Karina’s most vivid memory is her dad looking around her room (which was very messy) and yelling at her mom. Soon after, he packed his suitcase and came back a week later for the rest of his belongings. After this, she only saw him a few days a month and less often after a couple of years, when he remarried and had more children.
It’s common wisdom that parents don’t break up over a messy home or bedroom, but children of divorce, especially prior to adolescence, don’t understand this because they are not yet able to use abstract thinking completely.
Daughters of Divorce Have Unique Vulnerabilities
During my 320 interviews for my book, Daughters of Divorce, I discovered that young women raised in a divorced family have a unique set of challenges and vulnerabilities that often begin in childhood, especially low self-esteem. I found that this was especially true for daughters in my study who didn’t have equal access to both parents.
According to my extensive research, even if she is told over and over again that her parent’s divorce is not her fault, a daughter’s pain is unavoidable. She yearns for her family to stay together. Inside, she may have a nagging feeling that I’m not good enough (to keep my family together). These feelings can lead to shame which is a belief that your “self” is wrong, unworthy, and flawed.
Where do Feelings of Shame Come From?
Research shows that our self-esteem and sense of worth begin in childhood. According to psychologist Kenneth Barish, PH.D., shame is an instinctive response to personal failure or inadequacy. Referring to feelings of pride and shame in his book Pride and Joy, he writes, “It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the psychological development – and emotional health – of our children.”
In a July article for Psychology Today, Stephanie Cox, MS, tackles the topic of shaming. With an eye toward arming young parents with the knowledge and tools to stop or altogether avoid shaming their children, Cox first makes clear that there is often a blurry distinction between shame and guilt.
Guilt is “is the feeling you get when you did something wrong or thought you did something wrong.” Shame, as Cox explains, “is when you feel that your whole self is wrong.” In other words, shame is a larger, looming sense that you, in your very essence as a person, are “bad” or “unworthy.”
Shaming typically begins in childhood, and the harmful and long-lasting impact of internalizing those feelings often results in kids believing “that they are unlovable,” according to Cox. Because shaming is part of the larger dynamic and culture of a family, it’s critical for young parents to cultivate self-awareness and empathy in an effort to stop the cycle of shaming before it starts.
Instilling discipline and a core understanding of right and wrong is essential to effective parenting. And the pressure to parent successfully is very real, especially for new parents. It’s key to balance the responsibility inherent in raising children with what Cox described as “prevent[ing] them from feeling as though they are wrong or flawed at their core.”
Offering concrete examples of the way that the language that young parents use when communicating with their children, Cox asks highlights the divide that sometimes exists between what parents want to say and what their child actually hears and internalizes.
What could be perceived as harmless comments, or perhaps criticism that arises out of the normal stresses of family life, can, in fact, have a much more serious implication than we realize. Cox emphasizes the importance of communication by breaking down a series of phrases that we might imagine a parent using when talking to their child.
Evaluating these “fill in the blank” statements shows that they’re both relatable and universal and that breaking the cycle of this style of parenting is indeed possible.
For example, if a parent says, “Why can’t you just ______?” Here, the “blank” could be anything from “act your age” to “be more like your sibling” to “do this right.” Without awareness, a parent could inadvertently be shaming their child in unintended but meaningful ways.
This kind of statement has a bigger picture connotation to it — that is, the way it’s received is likely to see the child believing that they haven’t just made a single mistake. Rather than thinking that the statement of discipline is confined to a particular incident or behavior, the child could come away thinking that they’re “bad,” or “less than,” or an unredeemable burden to their parent.
While the consequences of shaming are significant, there are plenty of tools for parents who seek to avoid it. In addition to family counseling, Cox advises that parents can “work on cultivating a sense of belonging instead of shaming your child for their behaviors.”
Cultivating a sense of belonging in a divorced family may take some work, but the sense of belonging is built over time. By having comforting conversations, quality time doing things that matter to your child, listening while turning toward him or her, and validating their feelings, you foster a deeper connection and enhance their self-esteem.
Parents who think deeply about their interactions with their children and make an attempt to be more positive by using validation will foster a sense of belonging even if they co-parent and don’t see their child every day. Taking the opportunity to listen to your children or teenagers and to build their sense of a positive “self” can reduce their feelings of shame and strengthen your relationship with them.