#17: Shame & Guilt
“Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.”
~ Titus Maccius Plautus
Instilling lasting shame and guilt in a child is not only emotional abuse, but if successful, can cause mental disorders and brain damage.
As parents, our most important responsibility is to nurture our children, not only meeting their physical needs but their emotional ones as well. Learning from our past transgressions or poor choices is a good motivator to change our behaviour. However, shame and guilt is not a practice of learning, it is emotional baggage that we carry that impedes our growth and has a large negative impact on our self-esteem and social interactions.
At times parents employ shame and guilt without even knowing that they are doing so, often in the form of a “feel-bad-game”; a three year old refuses to give a parent a kiss or hug, so the parent pretends to cry or pout. This causes the child to take on a sense of responsibility for their parent’s emotional state and feel shame to have caused that parent to feel bad. It also teaches the child that they have no choice whom they hug or kiss because it will hurt the other person if they don’t.
Just let that sink in for a moment; is teaching your daughter that she has no right to resist intimate physical contact with another person the lesson you want her to learn?
Shame and guilt instilled in childhood can cause us to be immobilized in the present for an action in the past. Far too often, parents use shame or guilt to correct behaviours - and it often appears to work in the short term, however it lingers in the mind of a child and may manifest itself throughout their life span. Shame and guilt not only impacts children emotionally, it can have a negative impact on brain development.
In a 12 year study conducted by Joan Luby, MD and her team at Washington University School of Medicine - Psychiatry, researchers looked at a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which regulates perception, self-awareness, and emotion. Smaller anterior insulas have been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, other mood disorders, and schizophrenia.
Researchers took brain scans of 145 school-aged children and asked their caregivers whether their kids exhibited any symptoms of excessive guilt, such as apologizing repeatedly for minor misbehaviour or feeling guilty about things that had happened in the past. The researchers found that feelings of extreme guilt correlated with smaller anterior insulas.
"In the kids who had high levels of guilt, even the kids who weren't necessarily depressed, they had smaller anterior insula volume, and that smaller anterior insula volume is predictive of later occurrence of depression," said Luby, "This research suggests that early childhood experiences impact the way the brain develops."
Michelle New, PsyD, an associate professor at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, DC, praised Luby’s research for helping pinpoint brain anatomy that place shame and guilt-ridden children at high risk of developing mental disorders later in life.
"This research is really new and exciting because you can look at changes in the brain, and it shows that early intervention is really important. Dismissing early symptomatology is dangerous." New said, going on to explain that mental disorders are often latent in children between the ages of four and 12, so being able to identify high risk children through a brain scan can help parents and therapists take preventative measures early in development.
A vital lesson all social beings must learn is how their behaviour impacts others, but being shamed or weighed down by guilt for their actions can echo through an entire life span.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S - www.interiorcounselling.com