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Shaming Children Leaves Scars on the Brain that Adversely Affect Emotional Health

Growing up, my father’s method of punishment was to shun me, a practice our family referred to ominously, yet humorously, as “Amish Death.” I would morph from a cherished family member into an outsider, someone who couldn’t be seen or heard until the time of punishment was over, which could be hours or even days when I became older. I was a ghost.

I found this treatment extremely painful as a child and even as a young adult. It riddled me with anxiety and made me cry. As I grew older, the impact of this kind of punishment didn’t lessen — if anything, it became worse.

When I became a parent myself, I had to work extremely hard to not mete out this form of punishment to my children. If I tried to put this kind of withdrawal and coldness into action, my older son, in particular, would be quick to call it out, and he would ask me if I really wanted to behave in such a way. This worked wonders to snap me out of “aligning with the aggressor,” Instead, I would try to express and articulate my hurt, frustration, or fear without resorting to inflicting the shunning punishment from my past.

Now, with my sons grown, I am still extremely sensitive to any hint of “Amish Death.” I frequently catch myself believing that someone is doing it to me. All it takes is for someone not to reply to an email promptly, and I start searching for why they are angry and what I did wrong. All this misplaced emotion is unhealthy.

In my attempt to move past this anxiety-ridden pattern, I have set myself the task of figuring out a better way to manage my reactions. My exploration led me to discoveries in neurosciences.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s studies of constructed emotion, outlined in her book How Emotions Are Made, describes how we socially connect or disconnect. She uses neurobiology to explain how we learn to treat one another and how we can refine how we experience and perceive emotion. She has uncovered how our brains construct concepts of emotion through predictions.

When my father abruptly acted as though I did not exist, my brain involuntarily and immediately predicted that my humiliation, grief, and anxiety were meant to punish me. My brain selected these emotional concepts that were reinforced again when I was placed in “time out” at school. When I could not regulate my emotions — my silliness or inability to stop my giddy laughter — my teachers made me leave the classroom, stand outside in the hallway, and not return until I was allowed back inside.

I can still feel the shame associated with someone seeing me banished out in the hallway. The scene screamed, “This girl does not belong;” “This girl is not worthy of being in the class with the other students;” “This girl is not like the rest of the students.” My humiliation from being ostracized made me feel as if I were unworthy to be in my classroom. In these instances when my father or teachers shunned me, my brain predicted that if I learned how to conduct myself in society better, I would belong once again.

Interestingly, my son, who had rarely been subjected to a shaming culture, made me question the default pattern in my brain that treated my children similarly when they acted out. Once my son called me out, my brain snapped out of the social concept of ostracizing a child who had done wrong. While we usually create concepts from past experiences, my son insisted that I create an emotional concept in the present.

In the past, when my brain rifled through my experiences to predict and set into action my response, it found instance after instance of shunning, but my son knew to ask for a conversation. Rather than disconnect, he wanted us to connect through talking.

When I think back on my father’s Amish Death punishment, I try to imagine what he was trying to convey to me. He often imposed this punishment when I had frightened him with my careless behavior. I had broken a rule or a cultural code that put me in physical or social danger. His punishment intended to show me that in his wisdom, knowledge, and power, he believed I should smarten up, or I could pay a terrible price — getting injured or being mistreated or misunderstood in the broader community.

When my teachers put me in time out, they attempted to teach me about respectful behavior. They had a classroom full of students to teach, and I was interfering with the other children’s ability to learn.

Nevertheless, ostracizing is not healthy for the brain. From a neurobiological perspective, my son was taking the right approach. Talking about misconduct or mistakes that put a child at risk is healthy. The most important lesson children need to learn repeatedly is that they belong. The science is now clear that our brains, as Matthew Lieberman points out in his book Social, are “wired to connect.” Ostracizing a child for a mistake creates harmful conditions in the brain, in the moment and in the future.

The brain learns by making mistakes, yet we penalize children for their mistakes. Getting in trouble for something they cannot help, but need to learn, creates conditions for anxiety and depression. Neuroscientists have found visual evidence in brain scans that such punishment results in anatomical differences that prevent them from responding to confrontation or persuasion in healthy ways. By shaming them, we raise children who become hypervigilant and do not take risks, fear reprisal, question their own perceptions, blindly comply, obey, and lose their critical thinking ability. The brain takes a severe hit from adult actions that, while they do not visibly wound the body, leave scars on the brain that can adversely affect health and conduct going forward.

If we want to become more socially and emotionally intelligent, then developing an understanding of how our brains make predictions based on past experiences is critically important. Once we become aware that our emotions are concepts created through our personal experience, we are empowered to choose how we respond in any given situation more carefully.

My son taught me to stop the default pattern of ostracizing and instead “use my words” to explain why I was upset. He pulled me out of the social construct in which I was raised and taught me to prioritize our connection, listen empathically to him, and strive to teach him how to be more careful or more attuned to social mores. By doing so, both my son and society achieve a better result.

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