Most adults are familiar with the sting of a broken heart. Although there’s truth in the adage “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all” no one likes to be jilted. Rejection is embarrassing, leaving in its wake feelings of vulnerability and disappointment. These are usually short lived, dissipating with time and new experiences of affection and belonging.
This is not the case for children. When parents play the role of a rejecting suitor, the effect on children’s emergent self is devastating. Early attachment relationships are meant to be an unbroken feedback loop of serve and return affection. When children’s expressions of love and connection are not reciprocated, their internal world starts to fall apart. If caregivers are attuned enough to notice the child’s distress, the relationship can be repaired and the child’s sense of well-being restored.
This is not the case when children’s expressions of affection are continually ignored or rebuffed. A pattern of repeated rejection leads children to develop strong misgivings about their own self-worth and desirability. They learn to be ashamed of their legitimate needs for love and affection. This sense of shame is far more devastating than guilt. Guilt is about doing something wrong. Shame is about being something wrong. When a child feels ashamed, he feels like there is something basically wrong with him.
Shame has serious consequences for children’s mental health. Shame robs children of their natural exuberance and curiosity. Some become guarded and withdrawn. Others become aggressive or violent, acting out against the injustice that’s been done to them. In either case, they are unhappy, and less productive than they may have been if, as infants, someone had returned their serve.
For more information about the effects of shame on children’s development, see Good Children at What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame at www.naturalchild.org
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