Toxic Shame in Children: How Do They Develop It?

Shame is a feeling that helps us improve inappropriate behaviors. The problem arises when a child associates shame with fear and it becomes toxic.
Toxic Shame in Children: How Do They Develop It?
Mara Amor López

Written and verified by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

It’s common to feel ashamed sometimes. This is a normal thing that sometimes makes us sad when our failures are exposed, such as making a mistake when speaking in public or tripping and falling. However, this can turn into toxic shame in children if they associate shame with fear from a young age.

Shame itself isn’t bad. In fact, this can even be positive as it can help children turn inappropriate behaviors into more acceptable ones. However, what happens if we punish children right after a situation where they feel shame? How do children develop toxic shame? We’re going to address these questions next.

Shame, a tool for children’s learning

Shame is a feeling that helps us improve inappropriate behaviors for better ones. It’s an acquired cultural behavior and it helps many young people interact in their community.

However, different cultures cause us to have different behaviors since what you can see in one culture might not be appropriate in another. As a result, certain behaviors activate shame, but this can change from one place to another. However, the feeling of shame is universal.

Toxic Shame in Children: How Do They Develop It?

It’s very normal for children to feel ashamed sometimes since it’s actually something that helps them fit in society because it reinforces, in a negative way, when they violate a social norm.

What happens if parents punish children after a situation when they feel ashamed?

In these cases, the child may associate a feeling of shame with fear and hinder their learning. Instead, they can feel imperfect and alone. Both emotions together can make the child feel misunderstood or feel like they’re not good enough.

As a result, it’s always important that you try to correct behavior from a place of kindness and tenderness so that children learn their lesson but don’t associate it with anything bad. That way, they’ll continue to feel positively and you can help correct mistakes without feeling less valuable as a person.

Why do children develop toxic shame?

If you punish a child for every mistake or inappropriate behavior, they can end up developing toxic shame. This can cause extreme embarrassment, which can affect their self-esteem and confidence. Therefore, it can also significantly affect their lives.

Can you pass toxic shame on to your children? Yes, you can transmit toxic shame in different ways. For example, you might be in a public place when your child has a tantrum. You might feel embarrassed and scold them. Then, the reason for the tantrum isn’t important, but your child will only feel ashamed.

If this happens, it’s best to talk to them and explain why you reacted the way you did and why their behavior was inappropriate. We can all learn from our mistakes and our children can too.

How can we avoid toxic shame in children?

It’s important that parents work on their feelings and emotions. You need to be aware of what is causing your children to feel ashamed, in order to try to remedy it. As we know, children imitate the behaviors of their parents. To try to prevent toxic shame from passing on to your children, keep these tips in mind:

Toxic Shame in Children: How Do They Develop It?

Avoid punishment and reprimands

If you want your child to change their behavior, you need to show empathy. This way, your child can begin to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior without resorting to punishment.

Always educate with positive reinforcement

If you focus on positive reinforcement, your child’s brain will begin to control impulses and develop connections. The more understanding you show your child, the more they’ll be able to channel these impulses. However, if they’re criticized, they’ll resist any behavioral management.

Be an example of behavior you want to instill in your children

We all know that parents are the main role models of their children. They naturally accept that everything their parents do is correct. However, this means that it’s difficult for them to perform behaviors they don’t see at home. So keep in mind that if you yell, they will too.

Speak openly and avoid creating taboos

If you don’t talk openly in your home, your children might keep secrets from you which can make them feel ashamed. They tend to hide things that aren’t verbalized or that they think are wrong and this causes more damage. As a result, we shouldn’t avoid any topics so that they don’t end up becoming taboos.

Avoiding toxic shame in children

As you’ve seen, toxic shame in children can cause insecurities, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence, among other issues. Now that you know what it is and how you can prevent children from developing this issue, you can put into practice some of the tips we’ve discussed here to prevent passing this shame from one generation to another.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.