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How to Break the Cycle of Shame with Your Child

Shame is one of the most painful human feelings, and it tends to be passed from generation to generation. As a parent, the last thing you want is for your child experience the same shame pain you’ve experienced, so you want to know how to break the cycle of shame with your child.

Your child’s negative or low self-esteem statements, along with anxiety, are often beginning signs of toxic shame. Here’s what you can do about it.

Toxic shame is debilitating. It causes chronic anxiety, poor self-esteem, and makes you vulnerable to being easily manipulated.

It’s different from healthy shame, in which you realize you’ve done something wrong and feel remorse, but you know it was just a mistake. You can cut yourself some slack.

When I’m experiencing healthy shame, my family and community benefit because I feel bad about how my actions or words affected others, so I’m motivated to do better. When I’m experiencing toxic shame, I can’t even help myself–I collapse into feeling like a hopeless failure, and I don’t even want to talk about what happened because I feel unworthy of being forgiven.

Can you relate? 

When we are still in the process of healing our own toxic shame, we’re more likely to pass it on to our kids without realizing it.

Many parenting practices that cause toxic shame aren’t so easy to spot. These are two of the most common parent practices that contribute to shame.


A tendency to correct or “help” your child do something better, even when the child hasn’t asked. This is a habit of perfectionistic and/or anxious parents. (I know it well!) Eventually the child develops a nagging feeling that their actions are often not “right” or “good enough”. 

It wasn’t until I noticed my son’s response to my “helping” and “correcting” that I realized it was crushing him.  He’d often instantly lose interest or excitement about what he was doing. Eventually he started to ask me how to do things before trying on his own. Boom! Now he’s losing the confidence to trust his own creative ideas.

For my part in this, I’ve had to look gently but honestly at my own chronic anxiety. And the more I’ve gained skills to create a feeling of safety rather than anxiety for myself, the less I interfere (unsolicited “helping”), and the more confident my son has become. Yep! You heard right. Calming my own anxiety helped my son with his confidence.


Most of us know that overtly yelling at our child and blaming them is harmful. But it’s harder to notice how we blame when we’re triggered and have become angry. A common *slip* is to say something like, “if you had (or hadn’t) done___…..” implying that your child’s behaviour caused your frustration or outburst, and/or that everything would have turned out better if only they had (hadn’t) done —–.

What to do if you’ve blamed:

  • Take responsibility for your feelings, your actions, and your words.
  • Tell them it’s not their fault.
  • Apologize, make things right, and repair the attachment. 
  • Let them know you’re working on trying to manage your emotions, but you still make mistakes, and you’ll keep trying harder.

Toxic shame is often caused by our children bearing the burden of believing our mistakes are due to THEIR behaviour or unworthiness. Our children have enough resilience to learn and grow through our mistakes as long as we take responsibility for our actions and do the work to stay connected to our kids. 

So instead of feeling inadequate as a parent when you recognize these patterns, remember that repairing, being “real” and attending to our own anxiety is healing for both you and your child.