black background, a child is hiding behind her hands

Written by EK Seo,  Licensed Professional Counselor

We all know that correcting our children’s misbehaviors is necessary and is a part of child discipline. However, we often ask ourselves, what if I shame my children by addressing their wrongdoings?

Shame is a moral emotion arising from failures, transgression, or wrongdoings and follows with a negative, global self-evaluation (e.g., “I am bad,” “I am unworthy,” or “I am a failure”). Feelings of shame attack individuals’ worth by criticizing their entire personalities or characteristics.  Any statements with “you never” or “you always” (e.g., you always mess up things) and labeling one’s negative characteristics (e.g., you are lazy or you are stupid) will induce feelings of shame. According to research, shame is related to various mental issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorder, anger, and low self-esteem (Vikan, Hassel, Rugset, Johansen, & Moen, 2010; Oluyori, 2013; Cook, 2001; Tangney, 1995).

Then, how can we help our children to become responsible for their wrongdoings without attacking their worth? The Gottman Institute suggests complaint rather than criticism (or shaming) for effective communication. Complaint is communicating why the specific behavior is wrong instead of criticizing the worth of the person. Complaint will be a “you did something wrong” statement whereas shaming (or criticism) will be “there is something wrong with you” statement. An example of complaint is “I am upset that you hit your brother” while shaming (or criticism) is “you always hit your brother, you are a such a bad child.” When we focus on the specific behavior, children will feel guilty because of what they did wrong. Although guilt is painful, it will help children to repair or amend their  behaviors for the failure or wrongdoing.

To summarize:

  • Do not use “always” or “never” statements
  • Do utilize the complaint tactic, not the criticism tactic
  • Do not attack children’s personalities by labeling (e.g., you are helpless, or you are lazy)
  • Focus on the specific behavior (e.g., you lied that your sister broke the computer) rather than attacking the child’s personality (e.g., you are a bad girl)

Parents, don’t be afraid of correcting your child. But be mindful of your words and the focus of the correction.


Vikan, A., Hassel, A. M., Rugset, A., Johansen, H. E., & Moen, T. (2010). A test of shame in outpatients with emotional disorders. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 64(3), 196-202.  

Oluyori, T. (2013). A systematic review of qualitative studies on shame, guilt and eating disorders. Counseling Psychology Review, 28(4), 47-59.

Cook, D. R. (1989). Internalized Shame Scale (ISS). University of Wisconsin, Stout.

Tangney, J. P. (1995). Shame and guilt in interpersonal relationships. In J. P. Tangney & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride (pp. 114-139). New York, NY: Guilford Press.