Everything I teach in my parenting sessions and workshops revolves around the understanding that any time someone is acting in an unhealthy way it is because they are missing an essential need. This is true for all people no matter the age- think of the last time you dove into a pint of ice cream because you needed to feel something good. When our needs are met, we feel good and act accordingly. When they are not, we feel bad and unfortunately ALSO act accordingly.
Sometimes rebellion is just the light version- it’s just a tween’s or teen’s way of individuating- trying out their own choices and desiring to be different from their family. This is a normal part of growing up and is similar to a toddler learning the world for themselves. This is not the kind I am writing about today.
Unfortunately, rebellion is also often a negative response to the use of shame and punishment. Shame, according to Brene Brown, is the intense feeling that we are not good and therefore we are unworthy of love and belonging. According to psychologists Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow, belonging is one of the most essential human needs. Shame cuts that need off at the knees. When a child feels unworthy, they will act in unhealthy ways to try to find a better feeling.
“When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack and shame others. In fact, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.” ~Brene Brown
So what about punishment? Isn't it the only way to get children to do what I tell them to? No, and unfortunately, punishment induces shame in our children. We use punishment techniques to make a child feel bad about who they are as a person because of what they may have done. Shame and punishment are some of the most common and yet most damaging techniques we can use with our children. Punishment will not only cause rebellion, but also resentment and revenge. This just makes our children feel worse- and as I stated above, when someone feels bad, they act badly. So this will not work to get your children to cooperate positively in the family. It will actually disengage them even more.
We have all used shame at some point in our lives. It is embedded in our society- throughout the criminal justice system, the school system, and in many religions. It has been engrained in us that in order to get someone to be good, we need to first make them feel bad. It is so misguided, but still such a strongly held belief by most of us. So don’t feel guilty if you have used this in the past. You didn’t know the damaging effects until today, and you can’t do better until you know better.
So what do you do if this is in fact why your child is rebelling? Well, first you will need to stop all forms of punishment and shame. How do you know if something is punishment? If its only purpose is to make a person feel terrible for something they did, then it is punishment. Consequences are not personal, they just are. They are also respectful, related, and revealed in advance. Think of the electric company that shuts off your electricity- they send a letter letting you know the date the electricity will be turned off and then it just gets turned off. No one calls you on the phone to tell you how disappointed they are in you and how you are so irresponsible and you never do anything right. They don’t then go so far as to take away your favorite game “to teach you a lesson.” They just turn off the electricity. Easy, unemotional, and without shame.
Another easy technique to help stop shame is to separate the deed from the doer. "You are a liar" vs "You lied". The first induces shame, because if it's something we ARE, then it means we are unchangeable and bad at our core. Instead of, "You are so clumsy," say "I'm so upset about my broken vase." Instead of, "Why are you so irresponsible?" say "I don't appreciate you forgetting to feed the dog."
Once you have stopped shame and punishment, work on rebuilding the connection in the relationship. Listen without judging, become interested in what they are interested in, give them more say in how the family routines are structured. Involve them or respect them when they need their space. Eventually, when you focus more on the positives with your child and the shame and punishments stop, the relationship will grow.
If this article is only touching the surface of what you are seeing at home, or this leads you to more questions than answers, please email me. This is a complicated, nuanced subject and I can help you navigate the best way to get your family back into balance.