A little story about big emotions-shame

oh, the horrors of my actions
Oh, what have I done!

The Queen (my daughter) had big emotions in a little body.  She was called the Queen in part because of this (and in part because her high muscle tone gave her a rather regal bearing).  She was not like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Her big feelings were not directed in anger at others.  There was no “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!  aggression either physical or verbal.  But all of her emotions ran strong and the negative emotions were certainly more problematic than her positive ones (her over-excitement was rather cute for everyone).  Her emotions, though, often ruled the day.  If she found some event anxiety producing, there would be no talking her through, so that event was over for us.

But this story is not about anxiety, but a somewhat related emotion – shame.

Shame is an emotion, of course, but not one we like to think about often.  No one likes to feel ashamed.  I think we would pick anxiety, anger, or even fear over shame if we had a choice.  Shame is so personal.  When we feel anger, we are not liking someone else’s behavior.  When we feel shame, we do not like ourselves.

For children who feel their emotions strongly, shame is a very hard emotion to deal with.

They may become:

  • angry at the person who made them feel ashamed
  • immobilized by the feeling
  • inconsolable about their mistake (really fun in public)

So this is a little story of helping the Queen cope with shame.

The Queen was probably six years old when this happened.  She was a science geek and really into bugs at this stage of her life.  This resulted in having a bin of live bugs in my front room (because I do support the sciences).  The Queen, who was fearful about balloons (they might pop, you know), was fearless about bugs and collected them easily.  There were a variety of beetles and centipede type bugs who seemed to tolerate each other well  . . . living in a small aquarium . . . . on the coffee table . . . in my front room.

It was Saturday afternoon after errands.  I was cleaning up in a back room when I heard a thud, a particular kind of thud.  Upon reflection, I realized this was the sound of a bug bin hitting the floor.  I hurried to the front room (small house, not far) and saw the aquarium on the floor on its side.  Stunned beetles and centipedes had not yet recovered from their trip.  No one else was in the room.

I shouted, “I need a broom!” (not wanting to take my eyes off the scene and risk losing a largish beetle in my house).  A little figure whipped past me (from some hiding place in her room) to the kitchen reciting the mantra I had taught her, “No problem is too big! No problem is too big!”  She grabbed the broom and we quickly scooped the stunned creatures, their rocks, their sand, and their snacks back into their temporary home.  Whoo!

I looked at the Queen and asked, “What happened?!?”

She looked back and said (pretty quickly), “Leprechauns did it.”

“We are nowhere near St. Patrick’s Day, so I don’t think it was leprechauns.”

Her second try, “The bugs did it.”

“You mean to tell me that the bugs engineered their own escape by somehow pushing the bin off the coffee table?”

Silent stare.

That was her story and she was sticking with it.

In a moment of inspiration (lucky shot that day), I asked, “Do you want to hear the five mistakes I made today?”

Breathless response, “Yes”

“When I was unpacking groceries, I threw the loaf of bread on the counter and the bag cooked to the side of my new toaster oven.       When I pulled the bag away, the bread spilled into the sink and ruined most of the loaf.  It was expensive gluten-free bread.      When I was cleaning that up, I knocked over a wine glass (that I should have washed out last night), spilling wine on my favorite jeans.    And I broke the wine glass!

Did you make any mistakes today?”

Relieved look on her face, “I tipped over the bug bin.”

“Well, you are going to need at least four more mistakes today to even start catching up with me.”

And that was the end of that story.  There was no need for punishment.  It was an accident. I did not even feel there was need for an apology.  We cleaned it up pretty quickly and seemed to have found all the bugs (I kept count in those days).

scolding won't help
Scolding does not reduce shame

But it turned into a nice opportunity for a little life lesson.

For her – We all make mistakes.  And (hardly believable to her) life goes on.


For me – Distracting her from her strong emotions and giving her some perspective with my own mistakes had brought both relief and the ability to say what had actually happened . . . and to move on (the BEST part of all for parents trying to quell those strong emotions).

Of course, for the next several years (at least six years, I swear), every time shame raised its ugly head in her world, I was asked (through her tears) to recount EVERY mistake I had EVER made in my ENTIRE life.  This included her favorite – The time when I was 12 years old and called my mother stupid.  My mother is a wonderful person and the Queen is still in awe that I could make such an awful mistake.  Any mistake she has made pales in comparison.

And I survived my shame, so she will survive hers.