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When Your Child Won’t Admit They’re Wrong, It’s a Sign of Shame

child won't admit they're wrong
Credit: Meruyert Gonullu, Pexels

If your sensitive or perfectionist child won’t admit they’re wrong despite evidence, it’s a sign of shame. Here’s what you can do to change the pattern.

Instead of focusing on getting them to admit they’re wrong, focus on their feelings and experience.

Often when a child is wrong, they realize it during your discussion–especially if there’s evidence. However, if they have some shame or are struggling with low confidence or self-esteem, they’ll often keep insisting that they’re right. This is because their sense of self is too fragile to tolerate feeling “wrong”–it’s crushing for them. So they try to save face by insisting they’re right.

Discussions about “right” and “wrong” are always potentially a slippery slope to shame no matter how well we try to handle a situation. 

The key is to avoid discussion of right or wrong, and focus instead on needs and experience. For instance, let’s say it’s your child’s turn to take out the trash. They say it’s not, but you know from your observations and your other kids that it is. Start by imagining what they might want/need, and what’s going on emotionally for them.

Some possible suggestions for what to say:

  • “I can see that you’re having fun playing and were hoping it wasn’t your turn to take out the trash today. How about if I come with you and we sing a song while we’re doing it?” (Empathizing, making light of their error in a way that helps the child feel safe even though they’ve made a mistake)
  • If they’re really upset or angry, empathize with how hard it is to do something you don’t feel like doing, and offer support to regulate (e.g., “would you like a hug?”, or “let’s take a few breaths together first”).

This type of empathy will help them regulate in the moment, and will also create the type of emotional safety that helps their shame to heal. I know adults who slip into shame over fear that they’re “wrong” about something. Our history of focusing on right and wrong (instead of needs and emotions) is a major factor contributing to the ubiquity of shame in our culture.

Lastly, you don’t need to worry that they’ll never admit they’re wrong. Ultimately children learn to acknowledge when they’re wrong by experiencing safety and empathy when they’ve made a mistake, not by being forced to admit that they’re wrong.