Children's Hospital Colorado

The Shame Game: Is Public Shaming Effective?

A girl with long hair and wearing a short sleeve light green t-shirt over a long sleeve dark brown t-shirt holds a cardboard sign that says "I cut class and now I am suspended".
Public shaming is far more likely
to do more harm than good. 

In the photo, the teen stands roadside with a cardboard sign: “I Cut Class and Now I’m Suspended.” Or “I Stole, and This Is My Punishment.” It’s an example of a new kind of public shaming, and chances are, you’ve seen it or something like it floating around the Internet.

Increasingly, some parents are using social media to put their teens’ bad behavior on display in hopes of correcting it. According to child development expert Marlena Romero, LCSW, however, public shaming, whether online or in the real world, is far more likely to do more harm than good.

“It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Romero, a senior behavior health clinician at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “A teen thinks, ‘if my parents think I’m this low, this lazy, this bad, then maybe I am, and I’ll show them how bad I can be.’”

Public shaming is destructive to adolescent identity

For parents, the idea is to change the behavior; if the teen feels bad enough about it, the reasoning goes, then maybe he’ll never do it again. The problem is that the teen won’t just feel bad about the action — he’ll feel bad about himself. “Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time,” Romero says, “so shaming can be destructive to who they are as their identity forms.” 

And it’s not limited to the digital sphere. Romero points out that public shaming can also be yelling at kids in a crowded grocery store, labeling them with negative qualities (“you’re so lazy!”) or bad-mouthing them in front of others.

“Shaming doesn’t teach them what to do, it just punishes them for doing it,“ Romero says. “Over time you’re going to see a long-term buildup of resentment.”

Positive reinforcement, love and praise work best

A better approach, Romero says, is positive reinforcement: rewarding the good, rather than calling attention to the bad – which is not, Romero cautions, to give kids free rein. Positive reinforcement works best in conjunction with clear, unwavering limits that evolve as kids grow and behaviors change, along with an open, ongoing discussion about those limits with kids. “Guidance shows them what’s right,” she says.

Of course, Romero acknowledges, that ideal scenario is sometimes easier said than done. “I get home and I’m exhausted,” she admits, “and sometimes my first instinct is to just say whatever comes out.”

In these situations, it’s okay to take a step back, tell your teen you need a few minutes to think, and leave the situation to calm down, Romero says. Seek guidance. Professionals can help, but it can help just as much to talk to a spouse, a fellow parent, or a friend.
In everyday practice, try replacing negative-seeking behaviors with positive-seeking ones. “Instead of using social media to shame, do the opposite,” Romero recommends. “Use it to praise your kids. They want to be bragged about, talked about. They want you to be proud of them.

“As much as possible,” she continues, “reward them, love them. A lot of times, those positive behaviors will quash the negative ones. Imagine if you got money for driving the speed limit, instead of just getting fined for not doing it. Imagine how many more people would drive the speed limit.”

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