Last month, in Edinburgh, I put on a seminar with Robin Grille, one of the leading Australian speakers on the effects of early years experience. The title of the day was Love, Fear and Shame: Their effect on children’s brains, play and learning.
This morning, I found myself thinking of our discussions during that seminar. Across the street from where I was standing, I saw a mother screaming with anger and frustration at her son. He was about 14, and she had a daughter, about 8, by the hand. The son was leaning against a building, red in the face, and lookingdown so sadly, as if he wanted the pavement to swallow him whole.
My heart went out to all three of them. It was clear from his cowed look that the son was used to this. He wasn’t surprised or frightened or angry. Rather, he was trying to disappear, humiliated by this public berating. The daughter was pulling her mum away from him. The mother looked exhausted and stressed and irritated. And very angry, of course.
I wondered how I could help. Maybe that sounds crazy. The typical advice we pass to one another is to ‘stay out of it’. And I didn’t want to stress the mother further. She was clearly already well down that path. I didn’t want to embarrass her, fearing that she would later take that embarrassment out on her son. I wanted to try to smile encouragement to the boy, if he ever looked up, but I was afraid of embarrassing him too, by indicating that I realised he was in a bad way. This public acknowledgement would only make him more uncomfortable. His posture told me that he had already been shamed enough.
But by doing nothing, I was effectively saying that it is okay to treat another person, in this case a child, in this violent manner. If she had hit him, perhaps I would have felt less conflicted about taking action. Physical violence is considered, in today’s world, ‘unacceptable’ enough that I would have felt confident about trying to step in in some way that would help. But emotional violence is less clear, and apparently still acceptable, because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know how to help without risking worse damage. Clearly I’m coping with that sense of helplessness by writing a blog about it.
I do hope a blog is helpful, because losing the rag this way is possible for any of us. We do it when we think the other person has done something ‘wrong’, something somehow intended to hurt us. Our brain tells us we are the injured party, it goes into defense mode, and we lash out to protect ourselves against the person who we perceive to be threatening us. Its easy to believe that we even have a ‘right’ to behave in this way, because our brain tells us that we are under attack from the other person. They are the ‘wrong’ one and therefore brought our justifiable ‘punishment’ on themselves. I totally get that feeling. I lash out too.
I am smiling as I type, because this is the sort of theme that the Dalai Lama often addresses, speaking of the power ofcompassion, forgiveness, acceptance. (We’re hearing a lot about the Dalai Lama here in Scotland at the moment, as he will be visiting next week.) I am also feeling sad, because I wonder where that young man is this morning. Somewhere inside himself he will be feeling very lonely, because I will be one of many many people who have left him alone with his mum’s anger. This is a frightening place to be, left alone inside your parent’s swirling anger. It feels like violence. Indeed it is violence, because it is intended to hurt. Our social brains are very good at reading other people’s intentions. Babies are able to do that at well under one year of age. So actually, my description of ‘swirling anger’ is inaccurate. If violence is intended to hurt you, then it is targeted. This is an even scarier place. You are the chosen target for your parent’s emotional arrows.
This is the experience of shame: someone wishes to hurt you because you have done something that they find disagreeable. The message you are given is that you are yourself disagreeable. It isn’t just your behaviour. It is you as a person. Children’s brains are still busy building neural pathways, and so children who repeatedly get a message of shame — from parents, teachers, grandparents, peers, or anyone with whom they regularly interact — build pathways to anxiety. Their brain builds a well-paved path to that location. It is well-paved because they travel it often. This young man, standing on that street corner, will get onto that pathway often and easily during the coming years, perhaps throughout his whole life. He carries a motorway to shame in his head.
By now, any parent reading this blog post is likely to have gone to a place of guilt and their own anxiety. They may even be angry with me for saying something that has led them into going to that place. They will have recognized in my description the times they have lost the rag with their own child. This doesn’t have to be for major things. Its just as likely to be for something, like throwing a tantrum in the supermarket because they can’t have a packet of smarties or failing to get into the car fast enough when the family is rushing to get to school.
My intention is not to have any reader beat themselves up; we are plenty good enough at inventing reasons to do that ourselves. All I really want to do is remind us that daily life is stressful, and that it is easy to take out our stress and hurt on the people we love and need. This includes our children. If we can start by forgiving ourselves for our moments of behavioural collapse, then we have more compassion for others’ moments of behavioural collapse. This includes our children’s.
And once we are not drowning in guilt or anger, then we can think more reflectively about the neuroscientific insights we now have. Children who have to learn to cope with a parent’s frequent anger end up with a pathway to shame in their brain. No parent wants to do that to their child.
In fact, it is the wish to avoid creating such a pathway that leads parents to make themselves feel guilty in the first place! So: we best help our children by helping ourselves, by forgiving ourselves for our ‘failings’. As we get better at forgiving ourselves, we get better at not ‘losing it’. This means we get better at ‘forgiving’ the ‘failings’ of our nearest and dearest – we become more accepting. And then we also get better at ‘forgiving’ strangers – we become less judgmental. We can watch a mother scream at her child on the street and have compassion for her, knowing that she is in as much emotional collapse as is her son.
Our societies will be healthier, happier places when parents are less worried about how they are being judged by strangers. That little insight tells us how easily our whole society engages in, and suffers from, shame. Let’s fight it with compassion.