Toxic Shame


INIS MEÁIN“I’m a mistake.”

“I am not worthy.”

I must have been bad.

All of the above are sentiments that commonly plague the mind of the adopted child, even when they know their entire story. At the heart of these thoughts lay rejection and fear that he may again be abandoned, this time by you.

Regardless of his story, the child (because children are egocentric) often feels abandoned by his birth mother. Depending on the temperament of the child, the emotional trauma can create the feeing of toxic shame—the ingrained belief that there was something inherently wrong with him, and that is why his birth mother rejected him, gave him up, away, chose not to parent him. This child can feel a sense of worthlessness, emptiness.

Developmentally, until the age of seven or so, when the ability to reason is present, the child cannot comprehend an imperfect parent. So instead he sees himself as the flawed one. Unaddressed, this belief can take up residence in his mind and defense system, affecting the development of a false image and/or behavior (addictions, compulsions and obsessions) as he adapts to hide the false belief of defectiveness.

Some of indicators of this belief can be compliant behaviors, as in always being well behaved or super-sensitive to others’ feelings. As parent, you will need to discern if this comes from pain or health. Examples of of rebellious behavior or acting out are rage, stealing, rejecting others so he won’t be rejected first, and hurting others before he can be hurt.

In order to help your child, you must first understand what shame is and how it manifests. Then help your child dump the illegitimate beliefs by challenging any that are uttered, for example, “I was a bad baby.” If a child has stated this, the response would be something like, “No you weren’t. Your birth parents weren’t able to parent you …” and tell his story, the truth every time (in age-appropriate language).

Help your child ferret out and identify shameful thoughts as he grows older. When he shares that is he “such a loser,” explain that such a claim is false and why that is so. Encourage him to challenge the belief, dump it. Continue to be empathetic and supportive, keep talking with him and also affirm how wonderful he is. A hug, along with a smile, eye contact, and a genuine, “You’re awesome!” will help him feel valued.

Food for Thought: As parent, your job is to teach your child that what happened was not his fault. That nothing is or ever was wrong with him. How will you help your child confront his false shame and embrace that he is worthy?

~ Photo by Fergal of Claddagh

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen March 16, 2018 at 9:38 am

I am now seeing shame as the underlying struggle my daughter is having. Gotcha day was Mother’s Day 2007, China. She is experiencing the ups and downs of puberty as I experience the tail end of menopausal ups and downs. Shame is the theme in both of us! I now see that shame is triggered when she is corrected or admonished, even as part of a group and, as a perfectionist, when she perceives that she has ‘failed’. Not being good enough, although at the heart of most people’s root fears (including my own), is omnipresent in the daily feelings of an adoptee it seems. Now that I recognize this, we can address the root and not just react to the seemingly unrelated symptoms/issues, like inability to regulate emotions, fluctuating hormones, food, sleep… all valid and needing support, but not getting to the root. I can also share with her my own feelings of ‘not being enough’ and patterns of abandonment in my own family, including literal abandonment of a developmentally disabled sister. I found you on a google search of shame, adoption and archetypes and am so thankful! I just purchased your book on kindle and will read it later today!


Von March 28, 2012 at 1:06 am

And what about the ambiguous loss adoptees suffer, how will that be dealt with?


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