Early Shame: When Ruptures Aren’t Repaired

Over and over I’ve heard people say, “it doesn’t matter, they’re too young to remember.” FALSE. This is especially false in regard to children’s early interactions with their caregivers. For better or for worse, children remember. A child’s early interactions with their caregiver are one of the most influential factors in determining a child’s well-being and future functioning as an adult.

An issue that we commonly see in therapy is the impact of early shame. We see adults reeling from the aftermath of these experiences, trying to understand why they simply feel “bad,” why they have become so rigid and perfectionistic or how their belief that they are unlovable and will be rejected has created barriers in their relationship.

Well, here’s why…

As children are continuing to develop, the way our parents react to us and see us is the way we learn see ourselves. So, when a parent yells, ignores, or calls the child names rather than opening lines of communication and teaching the child, this sends them the message that “I am bad, “I am inadequate,” and “I am unlovable.” This can be particularly harmful if these interactions are repeated without repair, leading these beliefs to become internalized as truths for the child.

When a caregiver is critical, rejecting, threatening or even abusive, the internalized memory is not one of feeling safe and soothed, but rather one of feeling “bad.” These early interactions form a template for how the child expects all other relationships to work. However, because the child’s hippocampus (memory center) is not fully developed, the memories of these early interactions are stored in implicit memory, which is not as readily accessible to us.

“Because yelling shuts down the communication; it severs the bond; it causes people to separate — instead of come closer.”- Rachel Macy Stafford

No parent is perfect. No human is perfect. Sometimes it’s our own “stuff” that gets in the way…whether it’s our tendency to be a perfectionist that translates into the intolerability of age appropriate mess and mistakes or being overloaded and stressed. Perhaps our parents were intolerable of imperfection or perhaps we were expected to take on more responsibility than was developmentally appropriate. Nevertheless, this “stuff” gets communicated clearly and directly to our children.

So for all of us imperfect people, there is good news from parenting and brain development expert Daniel Siegel, MD who talks about the process of “rupture and repair.” He defines ruptures as inevitable breaks in the nurturing connection with the child. What is important is not that ruptures never occur, but that ruptures are repaired.

Here are three steps to the repair process adapted from Siegel.

  1. Pause, Notice and Analyze: Repairs require a certain level of insight by the parent to prompt them to heal the connection (i.e. I notice that I was frightening my child when I yelled at him/her).
  2. Tune into the child’s experience: what was she feeling, thinking?
  3. Communicate: Communicate and reflect to the child that you understand what he/she was feeling (i.e. I can see how scary it must have been when I was yelling at you).

Reparative communication is an essential aspect in this process, as being open and candid with the child allows the shame, sadness and sense of badness that is elicited in a rupture to dissipate.This process is extraordinarily important because when ruptures repeatedly are not repaired, this can lead to problems in the parent-child relationships and the child’s developing sense of self.

(For more information on perfectionism in adulthood, stay tuned for LA Therapy Spot’s upcoming blog post)