Faith and Family: Healing from shame and guilt — Parents should seek to live out the gospel while raising children, give grace

July 22, 2016

Children make messes and mistakes. They get angry and say things without thinking. They forget our instructions and do things that cause us to shake our heads in bewilderment.

In their book, Boundaries with Kids, psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend put it bluntly.

“As a rule, children don’t know what they are doing. They have little idea how to handle life so that it works right. That’s why God gave them parents — to love them, give them structure and guide them into maturity.”

At home, at school and in the community, children should have clearly communicated, age-appropriate rules that guide their behavior. When those rules are broken, the results are guilt and consequences.  

By common definition, guilt is the awareness of one’s failure to meet a standard. A healthy level of guilt teaches a child to handle their mistakes well, according to Heather Davis Nelson, author of “Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame.”

“Guilt leads your child to want to make it right through owning up to a sinful act or attitude and asking forgiveness from the wronged party,” Nelson writes. “It doesn’t linger; it’s a temporary state that can be rectified with actions of forgiveness.”

As the child experiences the natural consequences of the sin through discipline, such as loss of possessions or missed enjoyment, these “reality consequences” can effect true change in behavior for the long-term, according to Cloud and Townsend.

Attacking self-worth

Shame-based discipline takes a different approach. Instead of allowing consequences to occur naturally, parents who employ shame often respond relationally. They get angry, lash out, nag, withdraw from the child or use other emotional ploys in an attempt to influence the child’s behavior. Intentionally or not, a shame-based response attacks the self-worth of the offender rather than the sin. Shame closely connects the wrong act with the person who committed it, as in the case of Sammy, Nelson writes.

“Consider the difference in the following: ‘Sammy, coloring on the sofa is not OK, and you are going to have consequences for that.’ Or, ‘Sammy, why are you so bad and mischievous all the time? You always get into trouble and do what you’re not supposed to do.’”

The first response points out that the decision was wrong and therefore there will be punishment. The second communicates a much more negative message, that something is wrong with the child, Nelson says. Regularly employed, such shame-laden words create “a pervasive sense of ‘I am bad, and there’s no way I can fix what’s wrong’ or … lies such as, ‘I can never do anything right,’ and ‘I am unworthy of love.’

“Shame causes a child to withdraw from relationship or to blame those around him because the anticipated disapproval or rejection feels like too much to bear. Guilt may also motivate a child to hide or blame, but once the wrong is out in the open, restoration occurs and the child expects to draw close to her parent again,” Nelson writes.

With teenagers, parents may attempt to use logic to explain why they should not participate in certain activities. While that may seem like a healthy approach, often the teen only hears the parent belittling their personal judgment. Tim Kimmel, author of “Grace-Based Parenting,” calls this “image-control parenting.”

“Image-control parenting assumes that people will know you are a good Christian parent raising nice Christian offspring by your church attendance, the way you dress (or don’t dress), … the words and expressions you use (or don’t use), the schools you attend (or don’t attend), the movies you see (or don’t see), the amount of Scripture you can quote (and) the version of the Bible you read,” Kimmel writes.

Parents who take this approach are often more concerned about how they are viewed as parents in the eyes of others than they are in trusting God to lead them, Kimmel argues. Vickey, mom to two adult daughters, sees her concern about others’ judgments of her parenting as one of her greatest failings.

Modeling God’s grace

“I worried far too much more about how I would be perceived as a parent by my fellow church members than I did about being a parent that modeled God’s grace,” she said. “I often squelched their feelings and refused to listen to their perspective. My ‘teaching moments’ were more about the way I wanted them, and even more so me, to be perceived. Though scripturally speaking I was accurate, I was more like a Pharisee than Christ. Grace was sorely lacking.”

Nelson advises parents to look for opportunities to praise a child’s obedience and to trust Jesus to convict his or her heart.

“We use shame in our parenting because we have forgotten that it’s not shame of our sin that leads us to repentance, but it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8) is crucial to remember as parents seeking to live out the gospel that has rescued us as we raise our children.”


Grace That Breaks the Chains by Neil T. Anderson, Rich Miller, Paul Travis

Unashamed: Drop the Baggage, Pick up Your Freedom, Fulfill Your Destiny by Christine Caine

Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection by Edward T. Welch 

Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame by Heather Davis Nelson 

Families Where Grace Is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen 

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By Carrie Brown McWhorter

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