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Understanding Toxic Shame

Toxic shame is a deeply ingrained feeling of being fundamentally flawed, unlovable, and unworthy. It is a pervasive emotional experience that goes beyond guilt, as it impacts a child’s sense of self at the core. Children in care may develop toxic shame due to the adverse experiences they have endured, such as abuse, neglect, or being separated from their birth families. These children often feel that the problems they have in life are because they are bad.

But it is not them, it is what was done to them.

“Shame is rooted in early childhood experiences of neglectful and abusive parenting and trauma experiences. If you can help lessen the shame in your child, it will help them heal and reduce challenging behaviour within your home.”

The Go-To Therapeutic Parenting Handbook For Foster Carers

When children carry toxic shame, it can have far-reaching consequences on their emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Some of these effects include:

  • Low Self-Esteem: Toxic shame erodes a child’s self-esteem, making them doubt their abilities and worthiness. This can lead to self-destructive behaviours or difficulty forming positive relationships.
  • Emotional Withdrawal: Children burdened with toxic shame may withdraw emotionally to protect themselves from potential rejection or criticism, making it challenging for them to connect with others.
  • Avoidance of Vulnerability: They might avoid vulnerability and hide their true emotions, fearing further humiliation or rejection.
  • Impact on Mental Health: Toxic shame is linked to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that can persist into adulthood.
  • Trauma Retriggering: Certain situations or interactions can unintentionally trigger a child’s trauma response, leading to more distress and emotional regression.

As foster carers, it is essential to create a safe, predictable, and nurturing environment to help children heal from their past traumas. Here are some ‘Trauma Informed Responses’ to avoid retriggering a child’s trauma response and their feelings of shame:

  • Establishing Trust: Building a strong and trusting relationship is crucial. Be patient, consistent, and reliable in your care, and avoid making promises you cannot keep.
  • Open Communication: Encourage open communication, but never force a child to talk about their past or share their feelings if they’re not ready.
  • Recognise Triggers: Be aware of the child’s triggers and avoid situations that may remind them of traumatic events. If a triggering situation is unavoidable, be prepared to offer support and reassurance.
  • Normalise Emotions: Help the child understand that all emotions are valid and normal. Teach them healthy ways to express and cope with their feelings.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Praise and encourage the child’s efforts and accomplishments to boost their self-esteem.

You have the extraordinary opportunity to support and guide children in care on their journey towards healing and growth. By understanding the impact of toxic shame and being mindful of how to avoid retriggering trauma responses, you can create a nurturing and empowering environment where children can flourish and overcome their past experiences.