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Themes Covered:  

Dismantling Parental Shame

Good parenting equals good kids? Even though that parenting formula is common, its assumptions didn’t account for our reality.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

My husband eased the front door shut to the sound of hyperactive feet racing in the hallway, a frequent sound from our special needs son. 

“And? What did Mr. Carter* want?”

I felt puzzled about Mike’s regional director wanting Mike to accompany him to the car.

“He said…” Mike paused.

“He said we need to get our kids under control.” 

Oh, no. We both knew. This was about Charlie. Our ADHD son, who was now climbing the kitchen door frame, suspending himself midair. The five-year-old with disabilities, who had pounced on Mr. Carter like a cat scrambling up a tree. I’d hoped that Mr. Carter would interpret Charlie’s hyperactive pounce as, “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here!”

Evidently not. Hot tears of parent-shame threatened to spill over my dam of resolve.

“What?” I objected. “But he barely knows us!”

Obviously Mr. Carter’s first time in our home had not gone well. His initial impression? “Child out of control.” Yet Mr. Carter’s conclusion fit our culture’s assumptions—those confident declarations that say good parenting produces good children, so if a child appears out of control, the parents are to blame.

Shame, shame.

Understanding and Overcoming Parent-Shame

Despite our efforts to parent by the book, our mega-active ADHD son rolled out the normal antics of childhood at a hyperactive rate, which made Charlie appear that he was on the road to juvenile delinquency.

Mike’s boss had concluded that the parents of this out-of-control child should be reprimanded.

I felt the shame.

Not only parents of ADHD children face humiliation but also parents of ASD children, and LD, CP, TS, TBI—and on and on. The alphabet list of disabilities stretches long, and parents of all feel their own shame when their child’s behavior doesn’t fit cultural expectations.

Whether from tics, shrieks, spastic muscles, inappropriate comments, or blank stares, a child’s outward behavior can trigger inward shame for the parent.

To reduce that kneejerk of shame, it’s helpful to understand the source of those shamed feelings, then use that knowledge to craft accurate beliefs based on reality.

Building Resilience Against Criticism and Shame

Shame arrives when we evaluate ourselves negatively after feeling we haven’t met the expectations of society. A universal emotion, shame springs from the fear that people will disrespect you or hold you in contempt if you don’t meet their expectations. You dread loss of connection from not being good enough—in this case not a good enough parent.

When criticisms come, feelings of distress are real.

Yet a child’s disability cannot turn a parent into a flawed and bad person. So how can we endure those feelings of shame that have been triggered by the behavior of a special needs child?  The following tips can help reduce shame and create resilience:

Remember that often people don’t know the facts about disabilities or understand your big picture. Mr. Carter and his wife were new, young parents with one infant girl. He didn’t have much experience with parenting, much less with hyperactivity.

He didn’t ask about the interventions we were already doing. His view was limited. Yes, our son did need to grow in control, but with ADHD in the mix, this wouldn’t be a quick fix. Therefore, we could view Mr. Carter’s opinion as a mirror, revealing the ongoing issues, but solutions would be our own story, and progress would take time.

Silence the Feelings of Parent-Guilt

Learn the difference between influence and determinism. Parents definitely influence their children and have huge impact. Yet children have choices, too, plus disabilities can affect responses.

Parental influence comes in many forms, including instructing your children, setting a good example for them, and teaching helpful world-views or paradigms. Parents influence children, but the parent does not actually determine a child’s current behavior or ultimate outcome. The child does. Since you are not the sole cause of your child’s behavior, no need to pile guilt on yourself.

The cultural formula of “good parent equals good child” is only half true.

Parental influence? Yes.

Parental determinism? No.

Ultimately a child’s behavior is from the child, whether the parent manages them well or not. Reduce your self-message of total blame.

Our culture circulates thousands of opinions about best ways to raise children, so beware of taking anyone’s opinion as a final word on parenting. The explosion of varied and shifting opinions shows it would be impossible to use a random opinion on parenting as a standard.

Likewise, opinions cannot define someone’s personal worth. Know and believe that fact. Mr. Carter’s opinions about our wild son did not turn me into an unworthy person.

Embracing the Reality of Parental Influence

For staying grounded in reality, learn to speak true and valid messages to yourself.

Shame shouts, “I’m no good. I’m not a good enough parent.” But that’s not true. Again, that is not true.

What is the truth?

You have done some things very well, and you have also made some mistakes.

That’s okay. You are still learning.

But you are also making progress. Tell that to yourself, and say it out loud. You are learning to manage a very challenging child, but you are not all-or-nothing-bad or not good enough.

For me, it also helped to anchor my reality into God’s view of me: I am a mother loved by God. Because of Jesus, God gave the beautiful gift of forgiveness, so now my identity has become: I am pure in Christ and treasured by God. That reality can never be ruined by the behavior of a special needs child or by criticisms from others.

Shame thrives when kept secret, but when you speak your experience of shame to an empathetic listener, feelings of shame shrink. Shame fears disconnection, but empathy gives connection. Find a friend you can tell your shame to, or find a mentor, counselor, or support group.

Listen to others who have experienced similar feelings and can assure you that you are not alone. Many parents have faced the same issues you are facing, so other parents can be a good source of compassion.

Fortunately, I had a friend who empathetically listened to my experiences without criticizing or implying that I should be a better mother. With a Down’s syndrome son, she understood.

Focusing on Your Child’s Needs

By grounding yourself in reality and finding empathetic listeners, you will then be able to focus on what’s best for your child. Make plans that benefit your child even if others don’t understand what you are doing, or why.

Criticizers cannot grasp your child’s needs.

Obviously, focusing on your child’s needs is good for your child, but it also mitigates shame. I found that shifting my mental focus to my child’s needs helped me stay above and outside the criticisms.

When my hyperactive son needed to be taken out to romp in the grass during a wedding, I met his needs while mentally counteracting any imagined criticisms from “knowing” family members who thought I should be watching the wedding ceremony.

I tapped my courage to do what was best for my child, and that courage became an antidote to shame.

*Name changed.

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