The Learning of Shame

ON a recent Eurostar journey, I found myself seated in a carriage, judging by appearances, designated for parents and babies.  Little ones cried, were fed and burped, everyone smiled; and if they fussed too much their long suffering parents walked up and down or took them to look out of the window. Not so, the woman travelling alone with a toddler three rows back. Whether from anger, frustration or simple exhaustion, this child screamed for the full two hours of the journey, interspersed with the kicking of seats and the hurling of fists, toys, legs and head at her mother, who worked desperately to calm her. At first passengers were patient, then heads were turned, and finally, as if one, they rose to stare. Not one, mind, offered to help. As if hypnotized, the mother took her child, still protesting, out of the carriage and the cacophony was thus muted for the remainder of the journey, till both returned, drained of everything, ten minutes before we arrived. As we left the carriage, a few kindly souls, fellow travellers, remembering their own attempts to pin a two-year-old child into a confined space for two hours, murmured pleasantries, or helped with her bags, to assuage their guilt.

This is how we learn shame as parents.

Small wonder, then, that Barbara Cottrell writes of the parents she met who were abused by their teenage children that, though they came from all walks of life and practised a wide variety of parenting skills, what bound them together was their despair; and what they held in common was the burden of public blame and shame.

“Women live under the threat of not meeting societal expectations of being good mothers. … The fear of this condemnation also encourages parents to keep the abuse secret. They blame themselves for not being able to produce a happy family, they question their parenting abilities, agonize over where they went wrong and feel like failures.” 

While women (and men) remain silent, we can never have a true picture of the abuse that is carried on in our streets, in our towns, in our nation, and they cannot obtain help. While we fail to challenge the myth that parents are to blame for all adolescent transgressions we cannot expect a sympathetic public when parents do speak out. And while we continue to look down our noses disapprovingly at a parent struggling to cope with a toddler tantrum, there is no reason to suppose that the situation will change very quickly.

Shame on us.

(Barbara Cottrell: When Teens Abuse Their Parents, 2004, pp57-58)


Filed under Discussion

3 responses to “The Learning of Shame

  1. gulgun

    I am working with students on a daily basis where they are swearing or threatening their parents. I recently held a meeting where a mother of a 12 year old boy had felt so ashamed to tell us that her son had slapped and pushed her when trying to set boundaries regarding his behaviour, It is a worry that such violence towards a mother has began who feels she is fearful of her own child.

  2. carole lucas

    it very hard as a mum to admit your child or teenager threatens or hurts them im one myself so i can relate to this , its about listening to why this happens in the first place for me i took it three year and ended with me charging him . iv posted a comment above if you like to have read thanks carole

    • Hi Carole
      Thank you for your comments, and for having the courage to speak up and find help. We have been letting parents like you down for too long. Please reassure people you know that there is help available, and change is possible.

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