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  • Parenting with Shame: Adaptive vs. Toxic Shame

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    Mahiya ka nga sa sarili mo!  (you should be ashamed of yourself) is a common parenting statement strategy that Filipino parents use in the Philippines to curb inappropriate behaviors.

    Even young children can read non-verbal cues like-

    The stare, makuha ka sa tingin

    The jaw-lock look where the upper & lower teeth pile up together so tight it can break a tooth

    The looking down with the downward lip move usually accompanied with tsk,tsk,tsk.

    The stern face look that cannot be shattered unless the child starts acting “right.”

    parent shaming

    And there are no mincing in words with these-

    The Hay Naku with the head shaking.

    The SusMaryosep with the wrinkled forehead.

    The Pambihira with a deep sigh of frustration.

    These are not tell-tale signs that you’re automatically a parent who uses shaming.

    It may be of comfort to you that I’ve used them myself, rarely but have.

    You’re human.

    How do you know if I’m using guilt to teach my child to “act appropriately” versus shaming my child, you might ask?


    I was once watching a father and son from the aborigine tribe in Papa New Guinea in the show called The Most Dangerous Ways to School. For any of the children in that tribe to attend school, they must travel for seven days. 

    Imagine. And the road that needs to be taken are treacherous. There aren’t any sign that it only takes ½ a mile to your next exit. 

    It wouldn’t be a surprise why only two children from that tribe decided to attend school (that year). The elders prepared elaborate rituals, food & tribal blessings to ask their ancestors to guide these two children.

    Their parents have to save a huge sum, a yearly earning so that their children can afford not only school but the boarding expenses. 

    One of the fathers was assigned to guide the 7-day trek to school. They slept under the tree, shivered in the rain, shoo-ed away snakes and on the third day reached a deadly body of water. Many was said to have perished in this river. They had to wait another day for a boat to help them cross.

    Alas, they did but with a huge amount for the father in exchange for their safety to land. The children both shook from fear and perhaps the cold while in the boat. But when the boat was only a few minutes away from the shore & was close enough to a shore line, the little boy jumped out because of fear and refused to get back on the boat.

    The father jumped out to be with his son, spent time talking to the boy, coaxing him to no avail. 

    The father had to instruct the boatman to continue with the other child and to leave them behind.

    I watch as the father gather his son to start trekking back many days back to the same village that hailed the child safety with elaborate blessings and ritual. 

    I expected disgust in the father, or at the very least, shaming, disappointed statements. He did in fact, saved a year’s earnings for his child.

    There was none.

    The father spoke as he would’ve spoken to his boy whether he decided to continue trekking to school or not.  The father even affectionate and understanding in his tone.

    If the father arise with using statements that the child needs to consider before deciding NOT to pursue schooling, especially because the villagers have given them much blessings, or in the case of the father, his yearly earning- this is Guilt.

    Guilt is  an exchange of feeling bad about a situation especially if someone has shown you favor or at the very least has done nothing to displease you.

    Our colonial past (amongst others) taught us “not to rock” the boat.

    If the father felt extremely shamed to return back to his village with his boy in his hand, he would likely result to shaming his child.

    Shame is making the child feel that what he did was a reflection of him being “bad.”

    Want to learn more about how immigration affects Filipino parenting? Check out the blog on Immigration Trauma In Parent Child Separation.

    Access the Free Webinar on Pinoy Love Languages Here.

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    In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to use shame at all. In America even the proposition that shame can be functional can strike the wrong chord.

    This speaks of our privilege to speak up. Our lens to pursue equity.

    This is a good thing.

    Many societies including the Philippines do not (yet) have these privileges entrenched. The powerful, the rich, those who sit higher on the chain of social class can either maintain or diffuse the web of shame in Filipino parenting.

    When the environment is unsafe, and when speaking up has negative consequences in the macro-system (government/society), the micro-system (family unit) has to adjust to keep its young safe, usually through shaming.

    Adaptive shaming, therefore, in the Philippine context is making someone or a group feel they are “bad” so that they can reel themselves in to what is considered “good or appropriate.”

    The cause for not using this strategy can be lofty for the common Juan in the Philippines. If he doesn’t learn to stay in his lane-

    He can loose his job.

    Sent to jail.

    Picked up by some hoodlum.

    Be an outcast.

    adaptive shame

    Adaptive becomes maladaptive or toxic when we use the same shaming strategies even when the original reason why we used it in the first place, no longer exists.

    The dilemma is that our bodies remember the experience although the mind might be convinced it has processed it.



    Regardless of the context, it’s painful to learn that children are raised to believe “they are bad,” or that something is wrong with them.

    Much of our work whether we reside in the Philippines or in America is to mind our own space so that we don’t have to keep minding our children through shame.

    I shared adaptive shame in the Philippine context to give a breath of compassion to those who’ve used it. Advocating to change without understanding its function can result to same cycle of shame brought upon us.

    As community plays a vital role in expressing shared experiences for healing. Sharing toxic Filipino parenting without the eye of reflection and curiosity can perpetuate the same issue for many years to come.

    Sharing in a safe space where people can express, even hate on the way they’ve parented can be cathartic but if the group doesn’t have a plan to lead the expression somewhere, shame is recreated.

    Shame is recreated in the way you relate with people in your relationships-in your parenting.

    Remember, you were not born to shame and to remind yourself that what was learned can be unlearned. 

    A few pointers to be aware of so that you can pivot in a different direction as a parent. It doesn’t mean that just because you use any of these strategies that you automatically qualify as parent shamer. 

    If you’ve done these one or two times or rarely, don’t sweat it.

    It becomes a problem when it’s pervasive, meaning used as a pattern.

    Even as I said that, I know as a psychotherapist that imprints (negative experience that doesn’t qualify clinically as “traumatic) can have lasting impression through adulthood.

    Take a deep breath and know that there is no perfect parent, each day you and I are learning new things.

    A few pointers to be aware of so that you can pivot in a different direction as a parent.

    • Often using “good girl/good boy” as a prompt that your child is doing “the right thing.”
    • Using statements to this effect when the child commits an error-

     -what’s wrong with you?

     -why would you do that?

    • Love withdrawal when your child didn’t do as told. For example, silent treatment or maintaining a detached disposition for a period not congruent to the behavior. If your child threw a block on his sister’s face and you scolded your child. You might add flavor by keeping a detached stance (not talking/stern face) as this might be ok for a short period, maintaining this longer can result to feeling of shame.
    • Sibling comparison. Motivating your children to do better but using someone else’s standard rather than their own capabilities. 
    • Over-praising another child over the other. Favoritism and the use of parinig (talking to a third person in reference to you while you’re in ear-shot distance).

    toxic shame

    • Over-using tangible rewards can foster unhealthy competition in children. Tangible rewards can serve as trophy as to who is the “better child.” Use rewards sparingly and even better use many intangible rewards: praise, hugs, head-shampoo, tap on the shoulder, your amazed eyes (the list can go on and on).
    • Over-narrating your parenting duties to your child, like a burden a child needs to carry. Your child didn’t asked to be in this world. Sharing stories to pick out moral lessons can be valuable. Your tone and your timing to share your story can give you a clue. If you’re sharing in a relaxed state, your probably just story-telling.

    Again, this is not an exhaustible list.



    We know from the Adverse Child Experiences (ACE STUDY) that the way we have been parented, and the social determinants of poverty, housing, health and many more influences our physical and mental health outcomes.

    Parenting while in stress can have this adverse effect on you and your children so to untangle from the parent-shame web, try these:

    1. Work to bring your stress level down. Find out what soothes you. Is it nature-walking, journaling? Start incorporating this in your lifestyle at least 2x a week and slowly increase the frequency if you can.
    2. Visualize your day as a parent.
    3. Feel what you would like to feel at the end of the day.
    4. Listen down statements to try with your child. You may need a script in the beginning while you’re trying to get used to a different way to communicate.
    5. Give your child cautionary clue that you need space.
    6. Prepare for ways to recover from parent-shaming statements.
    7. Take care of You. Take breaks.

    Don’t forget to access the FREE WEBINAR on Speak the Pinoy Love Language. Begin your language fluency in this language to transform your Filipino relationships today.

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    Shame can be used as an adaptive strategy to reel someone in especially in unsafe environments when leaving the pact can have a steep consequence.

    Although adaptive at one point, the maintenance of shame can wreak havoc to our health and mental health outcomes.

    There are many ways to un-shame your parenting strategies so that you can break the cycle of toxic shame in  parenting, with your children and with yourself.

    You can start right at this moment.

    If you get off track, start at the nearest moment.


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