Guilt, Shame & Effective Confrontation

Guilt, Shame & Effective Confrontation

Life with kids guarantees conflict. Life with ANYONE does, for that matter. 

Yet let's make a broad and important distinction from the get-go because we don't always have to confront as a first measure.

Sometimes when we're in conflict, we dislike behavior -- whining, grabbing, pushing, slamming doors, crying -- that actually shows that our children need assistance. We aspire to and practice -- oh, it's mighty hard! -- seizing those chances to help them express their feelings and explore their problem. (Let's hear it for Active Listening!)  

Our non-confrontational approach to this kind of conflict -- caused when children have a hard time meeting their needs -- leads to resolution over time. The behaviors we find so irksome become rarer as children learn how to emotionally self-regulate and to assert needs in socially acceptable ways.

For this post, let's look at when confrontation IS called for: those numerous instances when children are happily living their lives in ways that negatively impact us. You know what I mean:

  • Spilling their sippy cup over the shag rug in the family room
  • Leaving an art project on the floor where you usually do sit-ups
  • Forgetting to replace an empty roll of toilet paper
  • Using up your laptop's battery
  • Not returning your stapler, your nail clipper, your contact lense solution etc. 

We have a choice in those moments -- of words, of tone of voice, of mindset.

And what we choose matters very much. 

I didn't know how much until I heard Brene Brown's popular TED talk on vulnerability and then devoured her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Learning about guilt and shame impressed me so greatly that, now, I always mention them as we turn to confrontation in the Parent Effectiveness Training course I teach.

Here's how Brown, a leading researcher on shame, distinguishes the two:

Shame: The painful fear of disconnection and the belief that I am unworthy of belonging. Shame = I am bad. Shame "corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better." (page 72) Shame positively correlates with:

-- addiction

-- depression

-- aggression

-- violence

-- eating disorders

-- suicide

Guilt: The discomfort knowing that what I did falls short of my values. Guilt = I did something bad. Guilt motivates us to make a repair. Guilt has an INVERSE association with the list above!

Brown, a mother herself, found that parenting is "a primary predictor of how prone our children will be to shame or guilt.” (page 224) She exhorts us to -- and I love her term for it -- parent with shame resilience as a goal.

So how to do this when confronting our offspring?

With a huge semantic tool: the Confrontive I-Message!

Now, the Confrontive I-Message flies in the face of how most of us are used to doing confrontation: by sending one or more of the communication Roadblocks identified by P.E.T.'s founder, Dr. Thomas Gordon. (Read my post highlighting each one in the context of confronting.)

Roadblocks come across as You-Messages that impugn character, assume intention or motivation, or otherwise undercut our relationship with the child.

In a nutshell, shame.

Instead, using an I-Message is merely to reveal honestly our experience of a child's unacceptable behavior. This may lead to guilty feelings, but does not call a child's inherent worthiness into question.

Itching to try?

At its fullest and most effective, a Confrontive I-Message will have three parts. 

1. Non-judgmental description of the behavior

Ask yourself: Can I take a picture of or video what he is doing? Can I record what she is saying? This helps us use objective descriptions, rather than subjective labels.


~Behavior: Running the toy truck over my foot

~Judgment: "Intentionally pushing my buttons"


~Behavior: Choosing the largest, reddest strawberries from the bowl

~Judgment: "Self-centered"


~Behavior: Opening the back door to call me to come look at something when I am talking with a friend over coffee

~Judgment: "Rude" 

When we describe only what we see or hear, there's less room for argument and less room for shame.

2. Primary, Congruent Feelings

Gordon encourages us to be congruent with our kids -- if we are super upset about their behavior, we can show it!

That's not license to have a tantrum though. While it's important to acknowledge our anger, Gordon asks us also to consider what we felt first, before that secondary emotion. 

When we share with our child not how mad we are, but that we feel sad or powerless, that is a true act of vulnerability. 

It takes courage and inner security for a person to expose her inner feelings in a relationship. The sender of an honest I-Message risks becoming known to the other as she really is. She is opening herself up — being ‘transparently real,’ revealing her ‘human-ness.’ She tells the other that she is a person capable of being hurt or embarrassed or frightened or disappointed or angry or discouraged, and so on.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 136

Choosing to be vulnerable is a necessary step in shame-free confrontation:

3. Concrete, Tangible Effects

With this third part, describe for your child how his behavior:

  • Costs you time, energy or money that you would rather spend elsewhere.
  • Prevents you from doing something you need or want to do.
  • Causes physical pain or discomfort. (Note: This has more to do with the actual result of behavior such as farting up close, or tossing an ice cube down the back of your shirt rather than the rising tension in your body when your child continues to play instead of taking a bath.)
  • Causes the loss of some item of value to you.

Sometimes, you might not meet these four criteria, but still have a relevant Confrontive I-Message to give, such as, "When you say the F word with your friends and Grandpa and Grandma hear you, I feel truly chagrined and nervous because I feel it reflects on me." The child buys it and would not likely ask, "What's it to you?"

So the specific construction of a Confrontive I-Message creates an awareness in the child of how her behavior affects us and our difficult emotions in that moment.

That might give rise to some good 'ole guilt which is never easy to feel, but is loads better than shame.

The Confrontive I-Message makes it easy to move past guilt because of the beliefs that undergird it: Once you know how I feel about your behavior and how it prevents me from meeting some important needs, I believe you will take action to help me. Thus, that's all I'm going to say. I'm not going to order you around or call you names. You don't need any motivation other than my simple act of sharing vulnerably with you.

I love practicing this skill with parents because, as Brown points out, how we parent has a long-term impact: 

[W]hat we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that either will require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth or will give us hope, courage, and resilience for our journey.
— Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, page 217

Confronting the P.E.T. way gives our kids the three things she mentions:

Hope - After mistakes, I can always make reparations.

Courage - It takes guts to admit I'm wrong but I see my parent being brave too in revealing her inner experience.

Resilience - This awful feeling of guilt can and will pass, and I will feel close again to my beloved parent.

What if our kids are not so little? Some parents who take my course, after all, have children who are already adults. I made a slide for them based on this heartening story:

Screenshot letter 75 yo mother brene brown.png

Confrontation is something we will have to do as long as we live with others. People in close proximity trying to meet their own needs (as well as others') are bound to have conflict.

But we have options. 

By using Confrontive I-Messages, we choose:

Shame resilience over shaming.

Vulnerability, rather than rage or Roadblocks.

To believe it's never too late to create closeness.

Thanks, Brene, for the push.

Watch Brown's other TED talk in which she states that guilt is like "I'm sorry, I made a mistake" but shame is like "I'm sorry, I am a mistake." 

And oh, oh, oh! If you have 52 minutes, listen to Krista Tippet interview Brown at On Being. Toward the end Brown addresses the fact that our own childhood experiences of shame were likely never processed with parents who had a language to do so. What a gift to be able to, after some of our own work, talk to our kids about vulnerability and shame in a whole new way.

If you'd like to read more about Confrontive I-Messages, check out these resources:

Credits: Woman pointing finger (