Trauma and Shame

Shame is a part of healthy human development however the experience of it within the context of trauma and abuse is very different.  The sense of shame that develops from experiences of complex trauma quickly becomes core to a young person's identity.  Consequently, the only way we can help traumatised young people to change their behaviours, is to work with their sense of shame. 

When shame becomes exposed and expressed and is responded to with empathy, the resulting intersubjective experience is often transforming (Hughes, 2007)

Experience of shame in context of healthy development

Shame is a part of healthy human development and all toddlers experience it.

Setting limits is a fundamental part of child socialisation. As the infant develops, the adult has to say “no”; otherwise the infant will hurt themselves and/or others.  

The infant does not enjoy this experience as it raises shame (feelings of “I am bad”).  Shame deactivates the sympathetic system and activates the parasympathetic system.  The infant becomes quiet and may try to hide.  A healthy parent or carer recognises this and reconnects immediately; the parent repairs the relationship, comforts and soothes the infant, and either shows them how to do the activity appropriately, or redirects the infant’s behaviours to another activity.

The child experiences small amounts of shame that are manageable within a safe and secure parent-child relationship.  This is the easiest time to teach the infant:

  • “Its not you, it’s the behaviour”
  • “Its not our relationship, it me teaching you”

This process is… Attunement in relationship → Break in relationship (raises feelings of shame in the child) →Interactive repair in relationship (reduces shame).


Emotional connection occurs between the adult and the child.  The child & parent share and enjoy positive emotional states, and the adult manages and contains negative emotional states.

Limit-setting, discipline  

The shared state of attunement is abruptly broken.  The child experiences shame; an unpleasant emotional state.

Interactive repair  

The adult helps the child to manage their feelings of shame and conveys continuing love and acceptance of child.  The child develops the capacity for emotional and behavioural regulation and learns to express appropriate behaviours and inhibit inappropriate behaviours.

Over many experiences of limit-setting, the child begins to learn:

  • Different behaviors get different responses from the adult
  • They start to inhibit certain behaviours to avoid the experience of shame – the start of socialisation development
  • Soon they begin to connect the effects of their behavior on animals and people and this is the beginning of developing empathy for others
  • At around 2 to 2.5 years they start to feel guilt. This is a different emotion from shame.  Guilt motivates the child to make it up to the person; the child wants to repair the relationship.  The shame decreases and the guilt increases.
SHAME about self decreases GUILT about behaviour increases
Child feels completely worthless Child feels badly about event/behaviour
Child wants to hide, becomes defensive Child wants to confess and repair
Child wants to blame others Child is concerned about their effects on others
Child feels minimal empathy Child feels empathy and remorse

Experience of shame in context of trauma and abuse

The experience and impact of shame is very different in the in the context of trauma and abuse.

Children do not experience the “attunement → break(shame) →re-attunement (repair)” cycle

Instead they experience overwhelming shame that begins to engulf them

The process is… Minimal Attunement in relationship →Break in relationship (raises feelings of shame in the child) →Minimal interactive repair in relationship (child is left with overwhelming shame to manage by themselves).

Little experience of attunement

The child does not experience their emotional state as shared or contained by the adult

Discipline occurs with rejection, humiliation or anger (and may be unpredictable and inconsistent)      

Shame is excessive and overwhelming for the child

No interactive repair provided by the adult (or delayed interactive repair by the adult)    

Adult is unavailable to assist the child in managing their feelings of shame.  The experience of shame is not integrated.  The child is unable to develop the capacity for emotional and behavioural regulation.  The child develops sense of self as bad.

Many experiences of overwhelming shame leads to shame becoming part of the childs core identity – I’m bad, I’m not lovable, I’m worthless
  • Feelings of shame lead to chronic anger and controlling behaviours
  • The child can feel isolated and alone, alienated and defeated, and never good enough.  They are trapped in shame, the shame has become toxic.
  • This state leads to the children experiencing difficulties with regulating their emotions and disorganised thinking.
Deep, deep down, he feels like a rotten child, and this is what is driving many of his behaviuors.

The Shield of Shame

Children will do things to avoid the feeling of shame.  This leads to:

  • Acting tough - “I don’t care”
  • Lying - “He’s lying…I didn’t do it”
  • Making excuses – “It was HIS fault, he made me do it”
  • Minimising their behavior – “It wasn’t that bad, he’s exaggerating”
  • Expressing rage – “You always blame me… you never blame me.. you want me to be unhappy”
Further Resources