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Helping Children Cope

Coping doesn’t come easy for kids.

Key points

  • Children as young as 2 cope with discomfort with blame, denial, and avoidance.
  • Parental guidance must not reinforce blame, denial, or avoidance.
  • Rather, model improving, connecting, and protecting as coping tactics.
  • Try to empower and encourage kids rather than punish or shame them.
August de Richelieu / Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu / Pexels

By late toddlerhood, most children develop coping habits to avoid and ameliorate painful and vulnerable feelings such as guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and sadness. For example, dishonesty in children is not primarily deception. It results from common coping habits of blame (they did it), denial (I don't know), and avoidance (hiding or pretending it didn't happen).

As parents, we must help our kids replace bad coping habits with better ones.


Although parental influence has declined in recent years, parental modeling is still a potent guide for children. They learn by watching us more than they glean from interpreting what we say. Children of resourceful, appreciative, caring, protective parents tend to be resourceful, appreciative, caring, and protective.

Our children need to see us cope with discomfort, problems, and unpleasant situations by trying to improve them rather than attempting to blame, deny responsibility, or avoid them altogether. They need to see that improving makes them feel better and that blaming, denying, or avoiding always makes things worse, at least in the long run. When they make mistakes, misbehave, or lie, the parental questions are:

What can you do to make this a little better? What will you do the next time?

They need to see us consider other people's feelings.

How do you think they felt? In your heart, did you want them to feel bad?

Empower, Encourage

Empowering children to do well in the present and future is more successful than punishing past mistakes. They need to know what to do. Don't focus on what not to do. Ask questions that help them arrive at solutions.

Never shame children for misbehaving or failing. We want our children to think of the consequences of their behavior, but shame disorganizes thought processes, impairing their ability to connect the punishment with their behavior. Shaming children makes them feel bad about themselves and more susceptible to impulses that offer adrenaline, namely, misbehavior. Shaming evokes a global sense of inadequacy or unworthiness that makes it harder to succeed. It doesn't teach children right from wrong; it teaches them to avoid punishment. Shamed children tend to be sneaky and more likely to develop anger problems. It will almost certainly make them shame others.

No parent wakes up in the morning thinking of how to shame their kids. Rather, it's a habit we fall into because our parents shamed us. (Shaming children to control their behavior has a long-standing tradition in human history, as seen in ancient literature.) Shaming kids is impulsive behavior, lacking forethought and consideration of its effects on the developing identities of children.

Examples of Shaming


  • Embarrassing
  • Disappointing
  • Inconsiderate
  • Selfish
  • Careless
  • Sloppy
  • Lazy
  • A liar.

How Shaming Breeds Misbehavior

The fact that we tend to do more of it as children grow should tell us that shaming is an ineffective means to desirable behavior. Shaming fails to guide positive behavior for three major reasons.

It's mostly about the past, something the child has done or failed to do. When we think of past mistakes, there's always a layer of powerlessness over the memory. Powerlessness evokes anger or resentment and reluctance to cooperate.

It's focused on what you don't want, namely misbehavior. Behavior tends to follow focus; that is, we're likely to get more of what we focus on.

Worst of all, it implies negative character traits with no clear remediation. How many considerate, selfless, careful, meticulous, truthful behaviors must the child do, no longer to be characterized as inconsiderate, selfish, careless, sloppy, or deceitful?

Consider your own reaction to something you're ashamed of. (An easier way to think about it is to recall when you were accused or blamed for something.) Chances are, your gut-level response was to deny or minimize, distract or deflect, or blame the blamer for being unfair. Your children have the same gut-level response.

It goes without saying that shaming words yelled or spoken in anger or disgust will have more of a negative effect and are more likely to stimulate the child's natural defenses.

Test the hypothesis for yourself. Recall the last four times you used shaming words to describe or discipline your children. Apologize for using the words, then ask if they remember what you were upset about. They're likely to remember you using the words, but you'll be lucky if they recall what they did to upset you.

The opposite of shaming isn't praise or compliments; it's encouragement. Some parents try to avoid or compensate for shaming behavior through praise and compliments. These differ from encouragement in a subtle but crucial way. Praise and compliments usually concern past behavior. Encouragement is more likely to evoke positive action in the present and future.

Examples of Encouragement

You can be:

  • Kind
  • Considerate
  • Diligent
  • Cooperative
  • Helpful
  • Smart
  • Resourceful
  • Truthful
  • Creative.

Encouragement tends to succeed at modifying behavior because it's focused on what you want—better behavior. Most importantly, it suggests a reserve of positive character traits for children to exercise. Encouraging tends to evoke cooperation almost as consistently as shaming evokes resistance.

Consider your own reaction when someone cites your positive traits or actions versus criticism or recitation of your negative traits or behavior. Which is more likely to make you cooperative or focused on success?

Most parents are unaware that shaming has negative effects on their children due to the automatic coping habits that children display when shamed. They don't seem hurt; they seem bored, dismissive, angry, or resentful. If your children are blamers or deny responsibility or avoid situations that might involve failure, be especially careful to encourage rather than shame.

Many adults who were shamed as children spend their lives trying to compensate for perceived flaws. They have little or no sense of internal reward. They tend to get frustrated easily. Some simply give up trying to achieve or have decent relationships.

Encouragement gives children the confidence to behave well and builds a sense of internal pride in doing well. Point out how good your kids feel when they achieve and when they're compassionate and kind.

Starting Over

If you've modeled blame, denial, and avoidance or have shamed your children, even with good intentions, remediation is necessary. Hold a family meeting, admitting your mistakes, with the declaration:

Instead of blaming, denying, and avoiding, we’re going to try to improve, make up for mistakes, and care for one another. How do you feel about that?

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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