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  • Writer's pictureSydney McCall Patel

Difficult Kids and Parental Shame

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Soothing Ourselves First

by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California

Growing up on the beach in Marin county, I was a total wild child. With three older brothers to look up to and model my behavior after, I didn’t have a chance to ever fit the mold that nice little girls were expected to fit into. Thank God. Instead, I liked to rub yogurt in my hair, wear sweatpants and tie-dye shirts that hardly fit over my belly and put my hands down my pants whenever I watched TV. Picture a messy haired hippie version of Al Bundy at three years old. In most of the pictures of me I’m flashing my underwear or belting out songs 3 inches away from the camera. I absolutely love this girl, but not everyone else knew what to do with her.

I was kicked out of preschool for not taking naps and for starting a revolution by getting other kids to not sleep. My parents’ friends confronted them with their concerns when my extreme behavior persisted. They wanted me to be obedient and put on medication before I was 10. I’m lucky my parents didn’t and instead gave me the space to live freely. I wandered the dirt paths of the beach community I grew up in, barefooted and with a stick to poke dead animals. I carried on roughhousing with my brothers and loudly expressing myself to basically anybody I knew, including my grandpa who I told was a pain in the ass when he tried to tell me what to do. I know my parents struggled with embarrassment, ambivalence about what was right and external judgments along the way.

Kids like me are everywhere. I see them and I love them, and my heart breaks for them. Some teachers really understood me, but I also remember the frustration in the eyes of the ones who didn’t. Their tense big bodies and furrowed brows as they talked down to me. I hated being at the bottom of a power dynamic and I couldn’t wait to get out to the soccer field to play. Today I work with and am friends with the parents of kids who are just like me. I see how incredibly challenging it can be to take care of them. I know their parents’ nervous systems are overloaded and they can feel like they are failing. The worst part is this harsh self-judgment can replace self-compassion when we need it most. What these parents actually need is community support, breaks to refuel and guidance. For some parents, one of the most difficult parts can be this social judgment and embarrassment piece. This wondering about what other people are thinking as they watch me and my defiant kid interact can be excruciating. And it compounds an already stressful situation.

Ironically, my child happens to be a goody two shoes. It’s not at all what I was expecting. But even so, I’ll still feel shame pinching me when he fusses in public and forgets to say please. But I also know parents who were goody two shoes as children and throughout their lives who now have these powerful and defiant kids. For them in particular this experience of outside disapproval can tap deep shame, something they have gotten very good at dancing around. And parenting from a place of shame can make us feel so alone, so alienated. One of the dangers of carrying shame as parents is if it goes unexamined we can put it on our kids. So how do we take care of it, if not for our sake then theirs?

Getting really curious about our inner experience is a good beginning. There’s evidence that the bigger the group we are in the more extreme projections we put onto strangers. We can ascribe negative thoughts to others that simply aren’t there. So the more of our own darkness and negative feelings we actually own, the less we project onto those around us. And when we can feel into the wild animal within us, it can help us to be more present and less judgmental of our “bad” kids. This owning of our untamed and darker side can help us to step more honestly into our lives because none of us are actually good or bad, those labels are bullshit, we are just animals trying to figure out how we belong and not get kicked out of the pack.

We all hold violent urges depending on the situation. The more we react and judge this natural violent tendency in our children and see them as bad, the more we increase our own fear and judgment about what we are dealing with. And what a violent animal needs is our love, strength and calm nervous system. Kids are also desperate for this reassurance. So figuring out what we need to be able to show up with these qualities becomes our work.

At the end of my high school junior year when I was handed the MVP trophy during the award ceremony, the varsity soccer coach said to everyone that I was both a dream and a nightmare. Everybody laughed. But this was how people saw me… if I was lucky. It was helpful when they could at least see both. I was fortunate my parents knew how to love me through it all, even when it was maybe hard to like me. Because this feeling of being loved is what I internalized and carried forward into my life.

Of course, with time I eventually learned to tame my wild behavior. I figured out how to have a softer gear so I could be a goody two shoes if I wanted. I mastered how to be agreeable and finding this gear made things a lot easier. But I’m so grateful I got to be wild for as long as I did, it gave me a sense of freedom that I still know intimately. As a therapist, this inner freedom is what helps me to make room and welcome my clients’ vast inner experiences and not just label them. Somewhere deep inside I can relate to them. I think this brings us closer, something perhaps we are needing to heal.

As parents, my husband and I want our goody two shoes son to really think for himself and let go of having to get it right for others. We want to foster his wildness and even his dissent. To us this means he is truly free. And when we break out of that tight internal duality of right and wrong, good and bad, hopefully we can also break out of our internalized shame.

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