We all have done things in our lives that we are not proud of. We may have behaved in a way that caused emotional harm to another person:
Gossip can be difficult to avoid as a teen. There is a sense of peer pressure to join in the hurtful communication.
Bullying is similar in that there is peer pressure to join in. To defend the person who is being bullied is to invite judgment. There may be a fear that our friends may cast us out of the group.
Arguments happen and happen with those that we love or are close to. In the heat of the moment, we sometimes say things that we didn't mean and later regret.
When we have behaved in a way that does not fall in line with our personal values, we may feel a sense of guilt. Guilt can be a motivating emotion that can be helpful. Sometimes, guilt can transition into shame and cause a teen significant harm. It is important to know the subtle difference between guilt and shame.
How Guilt and Shame are the Same Yet Different
There are a lot of similarities between guilt and shame. Neither emotion is fun to feel and experience and cause feelings of sadness, regret, and disappointment. Yet, there are subtle difference between guilt and shame yet they affect a teen in dramatically different ways.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is a feeling that hits a teen at their core. A teen may dwell on the thoughts and emotions after the action(s) has taken place. Guilt can interfere with the teen's normal daily functioning. Guilt may impact a teens ability to:
Get to or remain asleep due to thinking about their behavior.
Focus and concentrate in school or while doing their homework. Gifted students may find themselves struggling to get the grades they are capable of.
Compete at the level that they able to in sports or other activities. Talented teen athletes may find themselves struggling due to the effects of guilt.
Maintain a regular and normal diet. Teen's may find themselves not eating as much or eating more than usual.
Guilt tends to motivate us to action. It tends not to go away until some type of action is taken to correct the mistake. When a teen corrects the mistake, it may cause the feelings and other effects of guilt disappear completely.
Guilt is, "I made a mistake". The great thing about mistakes is that they can become learning opportunities. No one is perfect. The important element of guilt is the ability to make amends to the person wronged.
One way to make amends is to simply give a heartfelt apology. Simple doesn't always mean easy and it may be uncomfortable to apologize. But once the apology is given and then received, a weight is lifted from the teen's shoulders.
Sometimes, an apology is necessary but not enough. In these cases, teens can ask the person they harmed how they can make things right. Or, the teen can approach the person with their commitment and plan to make things right.
There are times where an apology will be enough to make things right. When they are not, action is needed and follow through with the action is critical.
What is Shame?
Shame too hits the teen at their core. But shame attaches itself and doesn't want to let go where guilt does not. The teen may also dwell on the thoughts and emotions that shame stirs up inside them. Shame interferes with the same normal daily functioning of the teen. They may not be able to achieve to their full potential as shame lingers, pulling them down.
Shame can include feeling bad about gossiping, bullying, or saying hurtful things. Shame tends to take it a step further. Shame can often develops around:
Actions that continue for a period of time and actions that the teen may feel incapable of escaping. Drinking alcohol or using other drugs with friends. There is an element of peer pressure where the teen may feel stopping the alcohol or drug use may mean not having that friend group any longer. Problems with Substance abuse can arise due should guilt transform into shame.
Actions that violate the teen and/or the family values and norms. A teen who engages in sexual activity and who comes from a home where remaining abstinent until marriage is an important value.
A teen who has experienced a traumatic event in their lives. There tends to be a high level of self blame that gets addressed in trauma therapy and PTSD treatment for teens. Teens struggle to talk about the traumatic event as avoidance prevents the feelings from returning. Shame can be a natural by-product of teen trauma or PTSD.
Identifying as bisexual, gay, or other sexual identity that is not heterosexual. There are parents who due to their family or religious value system, believe that homosexuality is a sin. Other parents may embrace their teen and cause them to feel loved and supported. In either case, society has given messages throughout their life that being gay is 'wrong' and there remains a heavy stigma around being gay.
Where guilt is, "I made a mistake and can correct it", shame is, "I am a mistake and I cannot be fixed". Shame drills down to the very core of the teen and infects the soul with self-defeating thoughts and emotions.
I am a Mistake, Broken, and Cannot be "Fixed"
Shame is like a living, breathing creature that lives inside and attaches to a teen's soul. Just like any other living, breathing creature, it needs food to survive. The food that shame feeds upon is secrecy.
Teens who feel shame are often embarrassed to talk about what they are experiencing. Parents will attempt to try to get them to open up as they sense that something is wrong. The teen may throw their parents off the scent by telling them that nothing is wrong, they are just tired, or simply don't feel good.
The more and the longer the teen keeps their thoughts and feelings about shame secret, the more the shame creature is fed. The more the shame creature is fed, the stronger it gets. The stronger the shame creature gets, the stronger hold it exerts on the teen's sense of self.
Teen's will often start thinking and feeling the following:
"I'm just broken, no one will understand and no one can help."
"Maybe I'm just a bad person. I don't want to change and my parents will never accept me for who I am."
"I'm weak and worthless. If were stronger, I could stop (insert behavior here)."
Shame perpetuates a vicious cycle where the worse the teen feels, the more ashamed they get. The more ashamed they get, the more they stuff and burry the thoughts and feelings. The more they stuff, the more they feed the shame creature and the stronger it gets. The stronger it gets causes the teen to feel shame and the cycle goes on.
Shame Can Develop Other Life Problems
Brene Brown, a well known sociologist and Social Worker, gave a Ted Talk titled, "Listening to Shame". In this talk, Brene talked about how the self-loathing that shame inflicts can continue a downward spiral leading teens to other, more problematic behavior. Behavior like addiction, eating disorders, violence, bullying, aggression, self-harm, and suicide.
Being able to intervene early when we spot the signs of shame can help prevent the downward spiral into other, more problematic behaviors. So, how do we break the cycle and what can parents do?
Breaking the Shame Cycle
As parents, our heart hurts when we see our teen's heart hurting. We want to solve the problem now so that they can avoid the hurt. We do have years of experience with these types of feelings and have potential solutions to the problem(s). When we have a teen who is struggling with shame and they are participating in family therapy, there will come a time in family therapy where the teen may recognize their parents wisdom through experience.
For teens, this may be the first time they are experiencing these feelings. We sometimes categorize teens as younger adults when in reality, they are more like older children. Their brains are still developing and developing rapidly. They may not have the coping skills or tools yet to manage their inner experience.
So when we offer advice and suggestions, it may fall on deaf ears as the shame creature wants to survive. It convinces a teen that parents don't know what they are talking about. It tells a teen that it's too hard or scary to try to change. In the end, the shame creature convinces the teen that talking about it is just going to hurt more and it won't change anything anyhow -- so why bother.
There are, however, things parents can do to help their teen who may be experiencing shame:
Practice & Give Off a Non-Judgmental Vibe
One of the lies that the shame creature tells a teen is that their parents will judge them for the actions and find them 'unworthy'. The shame creature convinces the teen that their parents may not love or accept them like they used to.
Again, this may be the teen's first time experiencing these types of thoughts and emotions. They may have not had the opportunity open up about something they feel is shameful. As a result, they may have not experienced how loving their parents are of them despite their behavior.
Disappointment does not equate to disowning. Parents are inflicted with a condition that causes them to love their teens deeply, no matter the behavior. They may be disappointed but they will never stop loving.
If parents can practice being non-judgmental and the teen senses the non-judgmental vibe in word and actions, this will go a long way in the teen choosing to open to their parents.
Validation and Acceptance
The teen is going through an experience that is colored by through the lens of their life experience. As they are teens and this may be the first time they are experiencing these thoughts and feelings, they do not have a large reservoir of life experience to draw from.
They may be fearful of approaching their parents and sharing their shameful secret. They may believe that their parents may not see the experience the same way they do. And they may be right.
Validating is a starting point and not the end destination. Validating can bring down the walls of defensiveness to allow further discussion on the topic. When you feel defensiveness rise again in the teen, returning to validating can help.
There is power in validating and accepting the teen's experience as they see it. Validating and accepting does not mean that we condone the behavior. Validating is simply listening to understand and reflecting back that you do understand. Below are two examples of validating your teen's experience.
Examples of Validation
Teen: "Mom, dad, I've been drinking and smoking weed with my friends. With school and all the stress, it's just a fun way to forget it all for a little while. It's not like I do it all the time and besides, it's just alcohol and marijuana."
Parent: "Because of the stress you're feeling at school and other areas of your life, drinking alcohol and smoking weed helps you to unwind. And, this isn't something you do all the time and you're not using other things that are bad."
Teen: "Mom, dad, I've been having sex with my boyfriend. We really love each other and I know that you don't approve and that the church doesn't approve. I know I need to not do that anymore but I really love him and a part of me feels like it's fine because we love each other."
Parent: "You feel two ways about the same thing. You really love your boyfriend and the two of you have been having sex. You're struggling a bit as you know we don't approve and the church doesn't approve. There is a part of you that wants to stop because of this but there is another part that wants to continue as it's an expression of love for each other. You are being pulled in opposite directions on this."
When hearing these things form your teen, it is natural to go into problem solving mode or detective mode. We want to ask questions on the 'why' of the behavior and gather information that will help us help our teen see the light.
When we start with validation, this can be a different experience for the teen who expected a lecture right off the bat. It will help them feel loved and accepted, will bring the walls of defensiveness down, and will provide an open dialogue about the issues.
If you have a teen who is experiencing shame and cannot talk about what they experienced, it's hard to not push your teen to open up and talk about it. We know through our adult lens that this will often help the teen feel better.
When we push to have the teen open up and talk about what they feel ashamed of, we communicate that though we are trying to help, we are disregarding the teen's sense of autonomy. Pushing your teen to talk when they are not ready can feed the shame creature and cause it to defend against talking all the more.
Now, it doesn't mean we don't 'nudge'. Checking in from time to time about how they are doing, if they want to talk about anything, and expressing your love for them, may help. Not saying anything at all is not an option. We may need to be mindful of the pressure that we are exerting is it pushing or are we nudging.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling:
Helping Teens End the Shame Cycle
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we specialize in teen therapy and family counseling. Our therapists have over 30 years of combined experience in providing counseling and therapeutic services. We help teens rid themselves of the shame creature, end the shame cycle, and learn to love themselves again.
If you are a teen or if you have a teen who is struggling with shame, reach out to us for help. The Owner & Lead Clinician answers each phone call and can help answer any questions you may have. He can also talk with you about how Katy Teen & family Counseling can help.
If you would like to start your healing journey, you can follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling, PLLC
Meet with one of our family therapy specialists
Start the process of restoring hope, happiness, and connected family relationships
Other Teen Therapy & Family Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling:
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we provide those teen counseling and family therapy approaches that are supported by research. Below are the other therapeutic services that we offer in Katy, Texas and for the Houston area:
Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)
Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
About the Author
Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He is a BCIA neurofeedback professional and trained in EMDR. He has been helping teens overcome the effects of shame since 2003.
Through his expertise, he also helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing.
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we only work with teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.
Call or email us today. Let us walk with you through this healing journey and end the shame cycle.