When Our Kids Feel Shame
Grace here. I have a thing about nicknames. I give them to everyone I love. Sooooo many of them. And weird ones. My little sister once said she was scared about what I would name my kids because of the things I called my cat. And her. And our brother. You get the picture. I gave my kids delightful actual names but true to fashion, I call them everything from Mumu to Bubbie to Snuffles. Giving nicknames is part of how I show love.
One evening at bedtime my then three year old son asked me to stop calling him one of the names I LOVE calling him when we are having cuddly and loving moments together. His whole life it’s been a call to our connection and his pure lovability. It nearly broke my heart to hear him ask me not to call him that anymore. Since he asked me not to use it I am not going to but you can take my word for it that it’s a cute one. For the sake of this blog post, let’s pretend the name is Lovebug (which is actually what my parents called me…Dad STILL calls me Buggy more often than not…even in professional settings sometimes…I’m not sure he knows my name is Grace he calls me Buggy so often…you see where I get it. But I digress.).
That night, instead of reacting out of my own disappointment, I got respectful and curious. Our conversation went a little something like this
Son: “Please don’t call me Lovebug anymore.”
Me: [gulp] “Okay Bubbie. I won’t call you anything you don’t want me to call you. I’m curious though, what made you ask me not to call you that anymore.”
Son: “People were laughing at me”
Me [remembering the following scene on a recent flight:
We are on the tarmac waiting to get off the plane. My son is standing in his seat having a lively and delightful conversation with the people seated behind us. He is enchanting them with this story and that story and they are obviously amused by him. He seems to be relishing in their attention even as they are laughing about things he is saying. Then he tells them he is a Lovebug and they all laugh. They laugh in a way that says they find him endearing but also in a way that feels a little condescending, the way adults sometimes do with kids. I don’t fully catch my son’s reaction in the moment, although I am listening, because I am also preparing our belongings while juggling my other child…traveling solo with two kids is a lot of juggling! He keeps chatting with them for a few more minutes before we deplane and carry on with our day.]
“Oh sweetie! Are you talking about the people on the plane?”
Me: “Oh yes I see. I’m so sorry you felt they were laughing at you. What a horrible feeling! I hate it when I feel like people are laughing at me. I can understand why it feels that way. I don’t think they meant to be laughing at you so much as that they were laughing because they thought you were cute and didn’t realize laughing would hurt your feelings. Of course I will stop calling your Lovebug if that is what you want. I do want to tell you that I feel sad to not call you that though because it is a name that reminds me of how much I love you and all the hours we have spent snuggling together so if you ever change your mind, please let me know. Do you want to tell me more about how you felt on the plane?”
Son: [tells me more about his experience and snuggles in close].
A few days later he told me that I can call him Lovebug when we are in private because he likes it too “but NOT on the plane”. And so I do. In the months since this happened we have talked about it a few times. We have talked about what he felt and how he can respond if he feels that way again. We’ve talked about how other people’s opinions of us are not always true and that we can know our truth even when we are getting different messages from the outside world. We talked about how people will have reactions about us or things we love and how we don’t have to let their reaction or opinions change how we feel about ourselves or our beloved thing OR how we behave about it.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because it feels like a really poignant example to me of so many aspects of being healthy with feelings. For starters,it shows the power of talking about emotions. Through our conversations my son was able to see that the issue wasn’t the nickname but what he felt when he felt laughed at.
He felt ashamed, like there was something wrong with this beautiful and celebrated part of himself. And what a horrible feeling that is! I know I can relate to feeling that way. Over the years I put away a lot of parts of myself when I had similar experiences. I want my son to know that his light does not have to be darkened by the opinions of others. I know the people on the plane weren’t meaning any harm in their interactions with him but I also don’t think they were treating him as a human so much as entertainment (they also seemed a bit buzzed).
At the time, it felt to me like he was enjoying putting on a little show for them. This experience was also a reminder to me as a parent to check in with my children and to help them learn to connect with people in ways that feel self compassionate and to give them the skills to disengage from the interactions that aren’t feeling good to them.
This story also shows how we as parents are going to have emotional reactions to what is happening in our children's lives. It is our job as parents to maintain responsibility for our own emotions. I shared how I was feeling with my son but I did not ask him to change to make me feel any different. I respected what he asked of me and processed my grief outside of our conversation. I showed up with curiosity and held space for his emotional experience without trying to fix them. I offered other perspectives that he might not have seen from the inside without invalidating his emotional experience. And I validated over and over his feelings and his right to feel them. I asserted his autonomy over himself and his right to speak up about his needs. These are all things that will help him have a healthy relationship with his feelings. And him bringing it to me the way he did shows me he is already on his way to learning these skills.
I also tell this story because it is a good reminder to pay attention to how we interact with children. Are they usually cute? Yes. Is it kind for us to laugh at them in condescending fashion when they are sharing their lives with us? No. And I would have said as much to them in the moment if I had realized my son was feeling laughed AT instead of laughed WITH.
Mama Bear signing out.
Except I also want to say that if YOU want to learn more about consciously teaching these skills to your kids, check out our class, Strong Foundations: Teach Your Children to be Healthy with Their Feelings. You can read more about it here.
Ok. Signing out for real now.
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