Question: I’m having trouble with my five-year-old when he does something wrong. I really want him to take responsibility and apologize, but he won’t even look at me or listen when I try to talk to him. Sometimes he even runs away.
Answer: It sounds like your son is getting overwhelmed by his feelings when you try to correct him. When we get overwhelmed, we go into emergency response fight-flight-or-freeze mode. He’s running away (“flight”) and blocking you out (“freeze”) because he feels like a bad person. When he’s made a mistake or a bad choice, he feels shame, a terrible feeling of being unworthy and unlovable.
This could be because of his sense that you are unhappy with him, the way you have disciplined him in the past or because he’s a sensitive person (or all of the above). When you try to correct him and get him to take responsibility, he avoids it all to not feel shame.
What you need to do is help him to understand that “I made a bad choice” (guilt) is not the same as “I am a bad person” (shame). Guilt is an interior understanding that we did something wrong, and shame is the feeling that important people in our lives think we are a terrible person.
You can correct him without creating shame by using empathy. When we correct with empathy, your child knows you still think he’s a good person. When he feels understood, he can accept responsibility for his actions.
How do you do this? Say you are upstairs and you hear a crash from the living room. You run downstairs to find that he was playing ball and he has broken a vase.
Let’s look at two possible responses.
Scenario 1: You don’t calm yourself. You’re angry and if he knows that it will stop him from doing it again. You say, “What were you thinking!? You know that’s against the rules!” Between your words and your anger, the subtext here is: “You are bad.”
Your son will immediately be on the defensive. When we feel attacked, we feel shame and overwhelmed. We don’t want to hear about it or take responsibility as that means accepting that we are a bad person. He will avoid you or make excuses to avoid feeling shame. I know when I feel attacked, it is very hard for me to admit that I’ve done anything wrong, even if I have. I know I’m not alone in this.
Scenario 2: First, if you are angry, take a minute to calm yourself down. Everyone makes mistakes. He’s a kid acting like a kid. Try to put yourself in his shoes. He knows he’s only supposed to play outside, but he is 5, he has low impulse control and playing ball is just so much fun. You say, “Playing ball is so much fun. I get it. At the same time, you know you’re not allowed to play ball in the house!” The subtext here is: “I understand why you did what you did and I still think you are a good person, even as I have to correct you.”
When you correct him with empathy and show him that you understand why he did what he did, he recognizes that the vase got broken because he made a bad choice not because he’s a bad person. He may feel guilt and regret, but he won’t feel shame. He can see how sad you are that the vase is broken and will want to make it right. Wanting to fix things (apology or otherwise) comes from feeling guilt without shame. If he knows you think he’s still a good person, he will be able to listen and take responsibility for his actions.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.
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