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Standing Up to The Culture of Shame

Posted by Dr Shelja Sen
January 15, 2018

NOTE: This post has been self-published by the author. Anyone can write on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Shame is the most common parenting and teaching strategy used by us!

In my workshop with teachers and parents I like to pose this question, ‘Do you use shame as a parenting or teaching strategy?’ Immediately, there is a resounding ‘No, never!’

Then I check with them if they have ever used these statements.

‘You are just lazy.’

‘You are too slow.’

‘Why can’t you be like your sister?’

‘Why do you come to school if you don’t want to study?’

‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’

‘You are good for nothing.’

‘You will never do anything in life.’

Everybody gets really taken aback when they realize the extent to which they end up using shame as a way of communicating with their children. Many times we try to justify shaming as a way of disciplining our children. I believe that most of the times discipline is nothing but institutionalised violence in disguise. It can range from something mild like criticizing, complaining, comparing, sarcasm, threatening, catastrophizing to severe shaming like shouting, abusing, detentions, completing cutting out/ignoring to suspensions.

Does it work? Obviously not but still we keep using it. We are all swimming in a culture soup, which encourages shaming as a way of communication. From parenting to teaching, to management, to the way we carry out our daily interactions with people around us.

I recently met an eighteen-year-old boy whose teacher had declared in front of the whole class, “He is good for nothing. I can give it to you in writing that he will fail in life.” Another fifteen old girl had been shouted at for being a ‘prostitute’ and her parents were told to take her out of school. Reason? The teacher had caught her holding another boys hand in school! The teachers might dismiss this as a disciplining practice but think of the erosive power of the shaming stories that start spreading from the child to her class, to her parents, to the larger community. A child who grows up with shame, and internalizes its destructive power, can perpetuate the cycle of shame and is easily led to cruelty to self and others. Like a tattoo, it can stay in the heart forever.

I believe that the first step to standing up to this shaming tradition is to become mindful of it. As a perpetrator of this tradition, I as a teacher or a parent need to become aware of the times when I use it with my children. As the victims of the tradition, we need to help children talk more about it.

Shame breeds in secrecy, silence and judgment. It festers and slowly eats at the core of the child and makes the child believe:

‘I am not worthy.’ ‘There is something wrong with me’ ‘I do not belong’ and pushed to the extreme ‘Maybe I do not deserve to live.’

Three facts: More than fifty percent of India’s population of 1.32 billion is below the age of 25 years. Leading cause of death in the youth is suicide. And India’s youth top the world in suicide. Therefore, I am not being dramatic when I say we are failing our children and our youth.

As a mother, child & adolescent psychologist, therapist I believe that we need to stand up to this shaming traditions. In my work from therapy, to my writings, to my trainings- this is one belief that carries me forward. I have written two books on this – All You Need is Love, The Art of Mindful Parenting and Imagine, No Child Left Invisible.


I have co-founded Children First, an institute of Child & Adolescent Mental Health along with my husband, Dr Amit Sen and Dr Kavita Arora (both Child & Adolescent Psychiatrists).  As an organisation, we are committed to building communities of concern for children and youth. We started working as a team in 2004 and over the years we have built a transdisciplinary team of most committed, skilled and professionals.  The main objective initially was to move away from a hospital setting and establish a children’s centre in the community, which provided effective, ethical and culturally evolved services. However, as the journey has progressed, we have learnt that our vision and intent is so much more than creating “a centre”. The services we provide include clinical services, developmental centre (for children with neurodevelopmental difficulties), Schools That Care (school mental health programme), Communities That Care programme (building awareness on child & adolescent mental health especially Depression, suicide, substance abuse) and skills building trainings around the year.


I am also looking forward to speaking about some of these issues at the TEDxGateway Conference being held in Bombay on the 4th February.


Dr Shelja Sen

Author, Child & Adolescent Psychologist and Family Therapist, Co-Founder Children First




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