Raising resilient, compassionate childrenInsights from the work of Dr. Brené Brown
by Angie Stephenson •
How can I help my child become his best possible self?
Every parent asks this in some form or fashion, and I am no exception. In recent years my
interest in this question has led me to the work of Brené Brown. Her ideas have been so helpful to me that I would like to share some of them with you.
Brené Brown, PhD, is a professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. Her specialty is qualitative research, which uses focus groups and interviews to gain insight into why people do what they do. Much of Dr. Brown’s work has concentrated on vulnerability, shame, and developing guideposts for “wholeheartedness.” Many of the ideas in this article come from her 2013 audiobook, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection.
“One of the things we need to think about as parents is: what prerequisites for worthiness are we knowingly or unknowingly handing down to our children?” — Brené Brown
Be What You Want Your Child to Become
One of Dr. Brown’s key messages is who you are is a much more powerful predictor of who your children will become than what you know or what you say to them. What matters most are the things you demonstrate in your own behavior, attitudes, and self-talk. Or as Joseph Chilton Pearce put it, “We must be what we want our children to become.”
This is our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity as parents: to become the adults we want our children to be and to understand what it means to raise children with courage, compassion, and connection. In doing this, parents will be able to cultivate a sense of worthiness in themselves and their children.
Providing this type of example is perhaps even more important for foster and adoptive parents. Sometimes young people come to you not knowing how to communicate in a healthy way. Often they have trouble trusting adults. By cultivating worthiness and resilience in yourself, you provide an example that may be more helpful than you realize.
One of the most important things we can model for our children is a sense of worthiness. We often act as if worthiness is conditional. For instance, I may believe I will only be worthy when I lose five pounds, if my husband gets a promotion, or if no one knows my house is a mess. This is incorrect.
Worthiness has no prerequisites. It is an “as-is” proposition. Worthiness is about showing up and letting yourself be seen. Dr. Brown describes people who have a sense of worthiness without prerequisites as “wholehearted,” and cautions that the enemy of worthiness is shame.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is the belief there is something we have done that renders us unlovable and we do not deserve to be in connection with other people. Shame is very highly correlated with addiction, depression, suicide, eating disorders, violence, and bullying.
Guilt, on the other hand, is about what we have done or choices we have made, not who we are. Guilt is inversely correlated with the outcomes listed above under shame. In other words, guilt self-talk has positive outcomes and can help prevent addiction, depression, suicide, eating disorders, violence, and bullying. As parents, we must do all we can to raise children who rely heavily on guilt self-talk, not shame self-talk.
Partly this depends on what we say. For example, if your son spills soda and exclaims, “I’m so stupid!” you might say to him, “Everyone has accidents. I don’t want you to think you are stupid. Even if it had been on purpose, it may have been a bad choice, but you are not stupid.”
But teaching shame resilience also depends on what we do. If you shout, “I’m an idiot!” when you accidentally spill pasta sauce, which message will be more powerful to your son?
Another way to build shame resilience in our children is to talk with them about it. These conversations are particularly helpful when children are already seeing you practicing what you are telling them. Dr. Brown recommends having conversations even when you don’t respond exactly like you wish you had responded. Let your children know in a straightforward way you are trying to change the way you respond, even if you are not yet where you want to be.
Finally, Dr. Brown recommends setting family ground rules around shame resilience. In her family, one of the rules is that name-calling is not allowed. You may have other ground rules. Ground rules can set the stage for how everyone will interact and help all family members know what to expect. This can be especially important when children are new to your home. Make sure your rules cover expectations for how adults will treat each other and the children and how children will treat each other and the adults.
Resilience to Perfectionism
We also want children to know the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving.
Perfectionism is 100% externally-driven. According to Dr. Brown, perfectionism is not about doing better and being better. Rather, it is a burdensome defense mechanism—she calls it a 20-ton shield. Perfectionism uses a thought process that says, “If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, and do it all perfectly, I can avoid or minimize feeling shame, blame, and judgment.”
If a perfectionist goes into a social setting with a goal of being perfect and she ends up facing rejection, rather than deciding that perfectionism doesn’t work, the perfectionist’s thought process will tell her that the problem is that she wasn’t perfect enough. She will think, “Next time I am going to be really perfect.”
Healthy striving is something else entirely. Healthy striving is internally-driven. It involves setting a goal to accomplish something and holding high expectations for yourself.
One of the biggest challenges with perfectionism is that it can be incredibly contagious. Dr. Brown has talked with numerous families where a parent confides that he or she is really struggling with perfectionism, but is determined not to pass it down to the children.
This is a false hope. We cannot raise children who are more resilient to perfectionism than we are. As Dr. Brown explains, “What I know to be true from my own experiences and certainly from the research is that if we are caught in perfectionism, driven by what other people think, unintentionally or intentionally, we are handing that down as a priority to our children.”
If any of these examples of Dr. Brown’s work resonates with you, you can access her blog, books, audiobooks, and TED talks from her website: http://brenebrown.com/.
Angenette (Angie) Stephenson, a former foster care social worker, is a partner at Holcomb & Stephenson, LLP, a small law firm in Chapel Hill that specializes in social services law and appeals, with plans to add foster parent adoptions to its practice in 2018.