For anyone who wants to know what shame-based parenting looks like, this picture from my old journal would do splendidly. In this “I’m Fucked up & I’m Fucking up My Kids” journal entry, I review experiences with the mother of my son’s best friend from kindergarten through sixth grade. Over the course of time, as our boys grew close, we developed a friendship as well. However, our sons’ friendship took a slow turn in another direction around fourth grade. Her son was a very sensitive, sweet and creative child. My son had a rebellious streak, and liked “marching to the beat of his own drum”. Early experiences as a critically sick child, had left a lasting impact on his trajectory of physical and emotional development (more on this later). As cliques developed and rules of acceptable “in-group / out-group” behavior solidified, our boys stood out terribly. It was at this point that the bullying began. Rather than banning together, the relationship between our son’s became strained as they responded in highly divergent ways. At the core of their responses was a desire to understand the negative message they received from peers. My son’s rebellious streak and emotional immaturity caused him to react to this bullying by making behavioral statements that communicated to others: “I don’t care what you think”. In contrast, my son’s best friend was much like me. He was hurt terribly by the bullying, blamed my son the fact that they didn’t fit in and wanted nothing more than to be popular. As I reflect on it now, when digging deep beneath these divergent responses, you have kids who were both hurting. They just responded in equally maladaptive ways. My son managed to ostracize himself from others, while her son followed a trajectory similar to mine at that age.
The Turning Point…
In retrospect, things changed so gradually for our boys socially that I can’t point out a turning point. Prior to the bullying and ostracism, all classmates played together, and nobody was really excluded. Gradually, fewer and fewer neighborhood friends came over. By the time my son hit fifth grade, he only had his oldest best friend to play with. The comments became very vicious as one bully would throw homophobic insults their way. The bus rides home then became stages of physical torment. My son would come home crying saying somebody hit him or was calling him names. I found these experiences triggery in a way that words can’t describe. As a bullied child, I couldn’t help but wonder if “it was my fault”. Was I failing as a parent, due to my own ineptness at knowing how to make friends? After all, I was that girl with cooties, and nobody would play with me either. Was this a genetic predisposition for dorkiness, or had I taught it to him? Fortunately, I had a therapist to help me work through all this.
“I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend Anymore…”
By the time they were in sixth grade, the relationship between my son and his best friend was quite strained and tumultuous. Due to divergent coping methods they really rubbed each other the wrong way. One critical incident still sticks in my mind, as evidence their friendship was near its end. I feared for my son who described his worry about losing the only friend he had left. He relayed stories to me after school about how his friend would say “I don’t want to be your friend anymore”. He complained his best friend was more concerned about popularity. I contemplated moving him to another school, and had entered him in counseling at this time, to determine our best course of action. On one day, as I was picking up him up from school, I learned about an altercation in school between them. I asked them what happened, and my son refused to say anything, putting forth his best “tough guy” front. His friend said he wasn’t wanting to be Josiah’s friend anymore because he wanted to be popular. This triggery statement reminded me of a time long ago, and in many respects I was looking at a younger version of my own self. Wanting desperately to be accepted and belong, I simply wanted others to like me and make friends. I tried my best to understand what that involved and couldn’t see beyond it. The end goal became more empowering than considerations of how to meet it. Underlying this steely focus was a wealth of insecurity, and unresolved pain.
And Here Comes The “Shameful Parent”…
I struggled after this encounter. More than ever, I felt it was essential that we begin discussing our son’s crumbling friendship. Hoping to salvage his last childhood friendship, I saw a situation in which two kids who were struggling with similar issues, but responding to them differently. However, I was very perplexed around this time, by a series of mixed messages and passive-aggressive actions from his mother. I sat down with my therapist and asked her what she thought about the situation. I even attempted to outline an appropriate plan of action, in which I could begin discussing key issues (See pics).
As you might guess, things didn’t go exactly as I had hoped. I had been troubled by our own crumbling friendship for some time. As a bullied child, my last good friend was in sixth grade. Throughout the remainder of my childhood I was very lonely. Today, these early experiences have left me a missing piece in the puzzle of childhood development. I never learned how to make friends. From this mindset, I found my own perspective reflecting her son’s, I desperately sought acceptance. I wanted someone to be my friend.
Instead, our discussion revealed something else. Her own skewed perception of matters revealed an incomplete understanding, that left out critical components of the puzzle. Not fully understanding the depth of my son’s ostracism or pain, she insisted he had plenty of friends to play with and was dismissive of my concerns. Failing to understand the nature of the close relationship with my son and his unique needs (due to early shared traumas), she felt I allowed him to walk over me. She picked apart specific aspects of my parenting, no home cooked meals, stay up to late, too many electronics in the house. All things that can bring about that endless cycle of shame. Her burgeoning anger, seemed to underlie a desire that I change in the ways she felt was needed to fix the situation as she understood it. The nail on the head moment, came in dramatic scene, in which she only acknowledged my son’s problems, but failed to address her own son’s issues. My son was deserving what was happening, I am overreacting & I was to blame. The mother in me felt a well of anger building. A pang of old hurt soon followed, as I recall being a child much like her son. I had issues, I needed someone there, but somehow nobody was “willing” to see this.
The Dramatic Scene…
My memory of this incident is a blur, but was nonetheless quite traumatic for me in ways I can’t describe. Mind you, I’m a bullied child, raising a bullied child. This was a shame-inducing minefield, in which I blamed myself. No parent wants their children to suffer the worst of their own childhood experiences. As I attempted to discuss my concerns (as I delineated in a journal with my own therapist), her own emotions escalated. At some point, hoping to put an end to the conversation, she sat up suddenly from her chair and pointed at me as I was getting ready to leave:
“You’re Fucked Up and You’re Fucking Up Your Kids!!!”
My head grew hot, my hands were shaking as the full onslaught of her words hit me like knives. I walked up to her, threw pop in her face, and stormed out the door. As I drove away, she sent me this sickening message: “I’m sorry, I should have given a hug instead”. I drove directly to our school district’s administrative office, and requested an immediate transfer. I shuddered at the possibility of my son having to experience what it is like to have nobody to play with.
One good thing about leaving an “unhealthy” relationship is you know how to effectively cut out the baggage of your life. Whenever I find somebody who crosses a line like this, I cut off all contact immediately. I shared these experiences with my husband during his lunch hour, and my decision on the matter of our son. I hoped he could see beyond my emotions, to understand the gravity of his situation. As a bullied child with no friends, much of his self-esteem lie in a delicate balance. My husband was supportive of this plan, and our son moved to a new school.. Neither one of us has spoken to this family again.