4 Steps to Help Your Daughter Stand Up to Her “Shame Monster”

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By guest blogger, Lynn Johnson.  Lynn is the co-founder/owner of Glitter & Razz Productions, an Oakland, CA-based company that teaches and reinforces social/emotional skills to children through the creation and performance of original plays.  The Go Girls! Project is their flagship program that includes camps, in-school & after-school classes, and workshops for parents and teachers that celebrate and support the magic and power of being a girl. 

Deep down inside, you know what I’m talking about.  Many of us, young and old, have that little voice inside of us that tell us “You are bad.”  And it says it over and over again.  Sometimes we know it’s not true.  But, other times, we believe it.  We call this voice the “Shame Monster.”  And this monster of shame is particularly mean and scary in women and girls.  We see girls as young as 5 and 6 years old already navigating the impossible task of trying to be perfect.  These girls are already internalizing the messages, “Being a good girl means that you never do anything wrong,” and subsequently “If you ever make a mistake, it means that you are bad.”

If we allow our girls to let these Shame Monsters have power over them, we are enabling a situation that can lead to depression, anxiety, and lack of self-love.  However, if we help our daughters recognize that they have more power than their Shame Monsters, we can help set them up to be happy, courageous, and creative girls who value themselves and who they are in the world.

What can we do to encourage our girls to love and celebrate themselves no matter what?  Here are a few steps that might help:

Step 1: Acknowledge the existence of the Shame Monster.  Although the Shame Monster does not actually exist in the physical realm, that doesn’t mean it is not real.  Telling your daughter “Oh honey, it’s all in your head” doesn’t help because you are denying her very real feelings.  Instead, say something like, “Do you ever hear a voice inside your head that tells you you’re bad?  I understand.  I hear that voice sometimes too.”  Acknowledging and validating your daughter’s feelings is the first step in building trust with her around this issue.  With this step, you are building the foundation for meaningful work.

Step 2: Make time to help her work through her feelings.  Talking to your daughter about her Shame Monster may be difficult, even a little scary, for both of you.  It’s hard for all of us to admit to, let alone discuss, the darker feelings that live in our internal worlds.  But, research about shame teaches us that the only way for these feelings to go away is to share them with someone else.  In that case, why not create opportunities for you and daughter to have these conversations in a loving and peaceful environment.  Take some special one-on-one time with your daughter, especially if there are other siblings in the home.  This could be at home with some music you both love in the background or perhaps out in nature.  Spend some time writing together first.  It is easier for some people to talk to others about challenging emotions once they have had time to express those feelings for themselves.   You could use regular pieces of paper or perhaps your daughter has her own journal that she already feels connected to.  Encourage the writing (or drawing if your daughter is younger) by starting with prompts like:

  • “My Shame Monster looks like…”
  • “My Shame Monster tells me…”
  • “I can tell my Shame Monster to…”

This last prompt opens the door to helping your daughter stand up to her Shame Monster.  Like any good bully, the Shame Monster thrives on fear.  You can encourage your daughter to use a calm, strong voice to face this bully and say “Please Stop.”

STEP 3: Use art and play to emphasize that ‘Mistakes Are Okay.” Art and play are how children process the world.  It is in the realm of art and play that all children can learn the lesson that making mistakes is not only okay but a necessary component of growth and development.  Some ways to teach this lesson in a playful way are:

  • Create a “Tower of Oops.”  This idea was inspired by a good friend, Phil Weglarz, MFT, the founder of Active Imagination, an expressive arts program for boys.  The “Tower of Oops” is simply a plastic tube hung in the room.  When someone makes a mistake, you can grab some scrap paper to represent your mistake, ball it up, and feel at ease as you toss it in the tower.  Here, you can see Phil introducing the Tower of Oops to some boys:
  • Sing a Mistake Song.  Work with your daughter to make up your very own song that you will sing to remind yourselves that everything and everybody is okay when a mistake is made.  Here is a song that we made up and taught to girls we work with:
  • Draw Blind Portraits.  Many of our perfectionist tendencies emerge when we are faced with creating a piece of visual art.  We are haunted by making something “right” and coloring in the lines. A Blind Portrait drawing activity is a fun way to make art without any expectation of perfection because the whole point of it is to draw a picture of someone’s face without ever looking down at your paper.  When you are finished, it’s just fun to see what you came up with.

STEP 4: Model for her by confronting your own Shame Monster.  This may be the most difficult and yet, most crucial step.  We know that our children do what we do more than what we say.  If we are really going to help our daughters, it is important for us to confront those areas of our lives where the Shame Monster has a little too much power.  The good news is that, when we do this work with our daughters, it gives us the space and permission to do the work for ourselves.

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