I came across an amazing piece of text in  Daniel J. Siegal  M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson PH.D’s “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way To Calm The Chaos And Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind”.  The authors write about how parents and caretakers need to teach/model to their children which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.  This is more challenging in real life than in theory and is a much bigger conversation – but bear with me. The idea of “toxic shame” is an important idea to be aware of. Toxic shame is essentially where you say, “No” to your child in a way that makes them feel defective – rather than a work in progress. I sum up some one of my worst challenges that I face as an adult with ‘toxic shame’ and you have to keep reading if you were ever screamed at or humiliated in public by an adult as a child or teen.  Siegal and Bryson write, ” . . . it’s essential that we set limits and that our children internalize  ‘no’ when necessary . . .  by helping them understand the rules and limits in their respective environments, we help build their conscience”  (Siegal and Bryson, pg. 61).  Saying “no” in a thoughtful way is sometimes the most loving thing we can do as adults, parents, teachers, and caretakers.  Kids need to understand the importance of limits especially in certain social situations.  They also need to understand how they themselves can put the brakes on instead of having a parent or adult tell them to stop doing what they are doing – it is a really important social skill set to develop.

There are ways of saying no that are more effective than others.  One reason I am passionate about working with kids is that I had “NO” said to me in ways that were very painful as a kid. If you asked 100 people a majority of them could probably tell you that they were screamed at by  a teacher in front of their class, a principal in the lunch room, a sports coach in front of the team at practice, a drama/music director at a rehearsal, a parent at home, a religious school teacher or some community member at some point in their lives.  The reality is that it happens. We can only be aware and learn to understand what is going on. Siegal and Bryson even talk about the fact that they as doctors and experts have flipped their lids as parents. Nobody is above it – we all get incredibly stressed out, tired and pushed to our limits at one point or another.  One of the best first steps we can take is being aware.

I was in a community theater production of “Oliver” in West Orange, New Jersey when I was in the third grade. I was in the chorus.  I had never been in a play before. I was so excited. I can’t tell you how much I love to perform. At one of our first rehearsals I noticed that the script didn’t have one of the scenes from the movie.  I raised my hand while we were blocking this gigantic scene for “Food, Glorious, Food” with the entire cast. The director was probably incredibly stressed out.  I raised my hand and said, “The script is missing one of the scenes from the movie. Are we going to do that scene where the kids pull straws and ask Oliver to ask for more gruel?” As an adult, this probably would have been very agitating and overwhelming in a stressful situation like he was in. He had to rehearse an entire scene with a roomful of people watching what he was doing at every moment. He reacted (instead of responding) by flipping out on me in front of everybody. “Matthew, YOU ARE WASTING EVERYBODY’S TIME! Don’t ask questions like that!” The director yelled a few more things like that at me and I felt completely humiliated in front of everybody. It felt terrible. I thought I was helping.  I felt so small.

One of my goals as a teacher, performer and as an early childhood/autism intervention specialist is to study and understand issues that I faced – and that other children face – and use these ideas as tools to help make other people’s quality of life better.  Siegal and Bryson define what this director did as, “toxic shame.” Siegal and Bryson write,

“When limit-setting and ‘no’ are accompanied by parental anger or negative comments that assault a child, the ‘healthy, developmental shame’ of a child simply learning to curb his or her behavior is now transformed into a more complicated ‘toxic shame’ and humiliation. One view proposes that toxic shame involves not simply the sense of having done something wrong, which can and needs to be corrected, but the painful sense that one’s inner self is defective. And this belief that the self is damaged is felt to be an unchangeable condition in the child – not a behavior that can be modified . . . Toxic shame and humiliation can continue through childhood and into adulthood, even beneath the surface of awareness, leaving individuals with a hidden secret; that they are permanently and deeply defective” (Siegal and Bryson, pg. 62).

The authors go on to write that toxic shame can lead to a variety of challenging personality traits including  having trouble with close relationships that might reveal this hidden secret, feeling unworthy, being driven to succeed in life but never feeling satisfied.  The good news is that even though people make mistakes – we all do – everything is a process.  We can always work on relationships and get better at them. One of the hardest things in life is  melding what we theoretically or ideally want with what the reality is. I speculate that the first step is recognizing that we are worthy – and that the people who yelled at us or “toxically shamed” us in front of others have nothing to do with who we actually are as people. We are not defective. We are whole and we need to recognize that.

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