Lather, Rinse, Repeat: The Shame Cycle

M, D3, R

I have been told my daughter is a mini-me… what do you think?

It was a low-key recent Saturday morning, and my husband called me over to the computer to watch a video with Dr. Brene Brown talking about shame.  At one point Dr. Brown remarked that specific memories can bring up shame for us, and, as I listened, a personal childhood memory popped into my head.

I couldn’t tell you my exact age, but I was old enough to make my own toast for breakfast, which I had done the Saturday morning this event took place.  My childhood home had myself, my three siblings, two parents, a grandparent and a dog all living under one roof, and consequently there were always multiple things going on at any given time.  So I happily buttered my toast, then sat down to eat it and watch Saturday morning cartoons (this was during the era when you could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning, kids these days don’t understand how good they have it!).  Unbeknownst to me, my mother had taken note of how many pieces of toast I had made for myself, which was apparently too many, because suddenly I was the focus of her attention; an unusual occurrence, given the number of people in one household.  In this particular case, being the center of attention was not a good thing.  “Do you have any idea how bad that is for you?!?” she exclaimed.  “How could you possibly even think to eat all of that?”

As I re-read the nuts and bolts of that story, it doesn’t look at all horrifying; in fact, it is probably a commonplace occurrence in the average American household.  But I can tell you, it is at least 30 years later, and I can still feel the shame in the pit of my stomach when I recall that incident.  I can place myself in the room in which it took place, 70’s decor and all.  That feeling is one that would repeat itself, time and again, through the next 3 decades of my life.

So I recall the incident, I finish watching the video, and I walk into the kitchen to thank my husband for showing me the video.  Instead of my husband, I find my 13-year old daughter pouring herself some cereal out of a Tupperware container, which is now almost empty.  The problem is that I had only filled the container two days before.  The container easily holds 12 servings of cereal, possibly more, so in doing this math, I am quite alarmed, and I start my interrogation:  who has been eating this cereal?  The discovery portion of this investigation yields that my daughter has eaten the lion’s share of this cereal in the past two days.  I point to the Tupperware container in astonishment, and I exclaim, “Do you realize that this container holds 12 servings of cereal, and it now almost empty?”  She just looks at me with an expression that in all likelihood mirrored the expression I had when my mother admonished me for the toast.

Sometimes when I say there are no coincidences, I say it with some sadness.  I have shame as I am typing the story of how I handled The Cereal Incident.

I am no expert on shame and parenting, but I believe that if I were to read up on the subject, I would find that it is not a good thing to use shame as a parenting tool.  Since my daughter has entered adolescence, I have been vigilant in how people speak to her about eating, because I know from personal experience the outcome of using shame to change a child’s eating decisions.  Not too long after my issue with the toast is when I decided that food was best enjoyed in solitude, I began to eat in private, and the results of that decision have ultimately led me into recovery from substances other than food.  So I have said to my husband, when he feels frustrated by my hampering of his conversations with our daughter, “Look, I don’t claim to have all the answers.  I only know what not to do, because of what has happened to me.”

And yet, here I am, fresh off of listening to Dr. Brene Brown, and doing the exact opposite of what I have been preaching for years.

So how to handle the situation where your child is making decisions that are the opposite of what you have taught them?  I have been very, very open about my struggles with weight.  I truly believe in open communication with children when they are old enough to hear it, and, at 13, my daughter needs to hear about the consequences of overeating.  And who better to tell her than someone who has lived through it?  So we have had multiple conversations.  I am honest with her about my bad decisions (regarding weight, we are not quite up to mind-altering substances yet, but that conversation is coming soon), and the way the consequences affected my entire life.

At the same time, who better than me to have empathy for poor eating decisions?  Because I still make bad choices, all the time!  So why would I react with frustration to a child who is doing as I have done (and, let’s face it, am doing)?  There are no easy answers here, at least none of which I am aware.  For now, I keep the lines of communication open, I make amends when I make mistakes like the one I just described, and I attempt to be observant for patterns of behavior.  And the end result?  I guess time will tell…

Today’s Miracle:

Posted on August 30, 2013, in Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. You reacted that way because you are human and we, especially mothers, are not perfect.

    I grew up with the same issues and, coincidentally enough (pun intended) the same shame heaped on by a mother with her own food issues. So when I saw that one of my boys was gaining weight I decided that rather than shame, I would take him shopping.

    So we went shopping…to the grocery store. I taught him how to read labels and what a real serving size was supposed to be because they are ridiculously small so that they can lower the calorie count on the side. I taught him about saturated fat and sugar levels and that sugar comes in many forms. Then we went to the produce section and talked about calorie content of fruits and vegatable and looked at volume. You can have one candy bar or 3 apples. We talked. He asked questions and then I did the hardest thing for me to do.

    I let him decide what to do next. I gave him the power.

    The results have been mixed. He doesn’t move enough so he still struggles with his weight but he is AWARE and he tries to make good choices.

    I just hope I didn’t repeat any of my mother’s behavior. When people asked me how Iearned to parent I just say…I did the opposite of what my parents did and hoped it was right.

    Good luck. This is a tough one.



    • Wow, Sherry, thank you so much for this. You know, it’s funny, I want to jump up and down and say to you “Look at all the ways you are handling this issue differently!” But then I have to say the same for myself, because I know I talk an awful lot more about this issue than I was ever “talked to.” I really like the grocery store idea, and I believe my daughter would really respond to it (and, since there are no coincidences, this morning we talked about going to the grocery store tonight after Mass, and the only child we will have with us is… my daughter!).

      Thank you so much for the feedback, and for the validation, I can’t really express how much it helps!


  2. What a tough one! How much help to too much? How much love is too much? i don’t have any answers, so in times like these, i always talk to my sponsor!

    Keep up the good work, my friend. 🙂


  3. Yeah, tough one. I am the same with my boys, in terms of not wanting to raise my voice or anything like that, but I do. I sometimes see the terror in their face when their dad, who oh so proclaims to be a gentle soul, shepherd to the unicorns and bunnies, raises his voice or says something out of line. I always wonder what it is that I am going to say or do that is going with them into the therapist’s office when they’re older. I can’t control that. I just try to be the best that I can, and try to learn better parenting. Picking up the parenting toolkit laid at my feet…lol.

    You’re aware, and that’s what is important, Josie. That is much more than many other folks have going on for them. Upward and onward for all us parents.



    • Hi Paul! The parenting toolkit feels a little light right now, and I fear that as my children are heading into their teens, it is going to feel lighter and lighter!

      I will often say those exact words to myself (I’m aware, which is more than most). But sometimes, when I am feeling argumentative, I will talk back to myself and say “And where has all this awareness gotten you, as you are still repeating the mistakes that you swore you wouldn’t do?” (Wouldn’t you like to be a spectator in my head?!?).

      At the end of the day, no matter how enlightened, sober, aware, WHATEVER, I am, I also happen to be human. So the real trick, I guess, it to learn from the mistakes I will inevitably make and keep trying to improve (parenting, sobriety, really you could just fill in the blank here).

      Sorry for the long reply; as always, Paul, you get me thinking!


  4. This is such a timely post for me. I am a grandmother of a very overweight 10 year old granddaughter. I am in another state so don’t get to see her very often. I will be going up in a few weeks. I always have this feeling I should have a serious talk with my daughter about her daughter’s weight, but I don’t want to make her feel like a bad mother. But sometimes I think she IS a bad mother. She is the one that purchases all the junk in the house. She makes her lunch, she allows her to eat the candy. My daughter and the dad are now divorced. My daughter’s life is crazy with work and dealing with a difficult ex-husband and raising two kids on her own without any family living close by. I feel guilt for that – like I should be there for her. I want to help, but feel it’s not my place. What a terrible to place to be in. If you have read or heard any great advise, I’d love to know about it. Being a grandma isn’t always the easiest place to be in either!


    • Oh, I really feel your pain on this one! At least for me, it is my choice if I want to take the advice or not. The biggest repeat in terms of advice is “be the role model.” But in your situation, that becomes dicey… do you share your concerns with your daughter, or will you be just stressing her out more? You are in a really tough spot. I will be sure to pass on any more information I receive, and I hope you soon get the guidance you need!


  5. That is tough, Josie, but I agree that shame is not an effective parenting technique.

    Did you daughter realize the serving size?
    Most of us don’t, until we’re taught.
    Does your daughter eat otherwise healthily? Exercise? Eat balanced foods? It’s all part of a bigger picture.
    Maybe you change the cycle. Be the change. Embark in eating more healthily, buying different foods, studying nutrition–and involve your kids and hubby too. I like Sherry’s idea of going shopping together!

    Show, don’t tell.

    None of us are perfect. Progress, not perfection. And you my dear are making progress.

    xo, Christy


    • The answer to most of that is affirmative, but you are most likely right on the money with me needing to be the change. After all, if I model the correct behavior, I will likely get the results I desire. Show, don’t tell, indeed!

      Thanks for checking in, Christy, and you will be getting a lengthy email from me after my “training” tomorrow morning!


  6. It’s all awareness. You are now aware of how your parents programed you with shame and how it is now so easy for you to pass this on to your child. The next time you are triggered with this compulsion, hopefully, you will be aware of what is happening. This is not your true self – but merely the baggage you have accumulated. The baggage is not you. Your parents were probably unaware of what they were doing – so it wasn’t their fault. When you lashed out at your child you were not aware of the connections so it wasn’t your fault. But now you are aware. Going forward, if you feel triggered and are aware and still lash out then it becomes your fault. So please forgive yourself for everything that has happened up until now and go forward from here.


    • I want to say thank you, Winston, but I gather from heading over to your blog that is not your name (what a cool name that would be, though… Winston Scrooge! I enjoyed reading your explanation). I really appreciate your comment… concise, practical, to the point, and I am going to try to take it into my heart, especially the next time I feel the urge to repeat that mistake!

      Thanks for the pingback as well! Looking forward to reading more of your blog!


  1. Pingback: Intergenerational Aspects of Shame – The Legacy of the Greatest Generation | Winston Scrooge

  2. Pingback: Monday Mitzvahs: No More Shaming | Leslie's Illusions

  3. Pingback: Happy 2nd Birthday: An Open Letter to My Blog | themiracleisaroundthecorner

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