Kristin Maher, wife of Christian contemporary music artist Matt Maher, has written a children's book to help kids overcome feelings of shame and other negative emotions.
Maher says shame is a topic that parents should not avoid talking to their children about, especially at a time when feelings of anxiety and depression are affecting 17 million children in the United States, according to the Child Mind Institute.
In her book, The Awfulizer: Learning to Overcome the Shame Game — which is also the first release for the National Center for Youth Issues' Truth Tellers series — Maher aims to equip children to handle negative feelings before they take root and follow them into adulthood.
The book will be released on Aug. 22 when many children will already be back at school and others will be preparing to start a new year.
The Awfulizer tells the story of “8-year-old James and the first time he met The Awfulizer—a monster that it seemed only he could see, who appears to remind him of his bad or embarrassing behavior. The more James listens to The Awfulizer, the worse he feels about himself; the monster grows larger and the greater the effects of shame become. Noticing a change in their child’s behavior, James’ parents sit him down to talk about what’s been bothering him, and James finds freedom and comfort in opening up about the feelings he’s experiencing. His parents give him tools to fight the negative feelings of shame—‘superpowers’ that turn him into The Awesomizer,” the book's synopsis reads.
The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with Maher, a mother of three, who offers advice to parents and caregivers on helping children through the darkness of shame so they can regain their confidence.
Christian Post: Topics of shame and depression can be pretty heavy topics to present to children. Where did the inspiration for The Awfulizer come from?
Maher: I started this book when I had been in therapy myself for shame for over a year. I saw one of my kids starting to develop some shame talk and behavior. I went looking for resources on how to talk to him about shame and explain it to him. As adults, there are so many great tools right now to learn about shame, but I couldn’t seem to find anything for my child. I decided to try and take what I had been learning in therapy and write a story about shame.
I know that so much of my past was shaped by shame, and I couldn’t help but think how much different it could have been if I had only known then what I know now. I feel like equipping our children with tools to combat shame early on is very important. It can potentially give them a huge advantage in today’s world.
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As a parent, I see how different the world is for my kids than it was for me. Now you can be shamed not only by people you know, but by the world. There are no reprieves from bullying, it follows you home at night. And it is no longer just people you know, but complete strangers as well. Having a strong understanding of shame and how it may affect you, and also how it affects others, can hopefully free them from their lives being dominated by those feelings.
CP: What are some takeaways you believe children and parents will get from reading The Awfulizer?
Maher: I hope the biggest takeaway is that they are not alone in feeling shame or in questioning their self-worth. Everyone has felt that way at some point in their lives.
I also hope it frees both parents and children to talk about the feelings they are having. Shame is fueled by isolation and secrecy. If we create a home environment where our kids feel safe to talk about their feelings, and also learn how to talk about their feelings, then we take that fuel away.
CP: As a mother, what advice would you offer parents on speaking to their children about mental health and having confidence?
Maher: I think honesty is the most important thing. I am very upfront with my children now about the fact that I see a counselor and go to group therapy. They know it is a safe place that mommy goes to to talk about her feelings and work on her heart. I want to normalize the idea of talking with others about your struggles and emotions.
Honesty also comes in the form of apologies when I know I have lashed out or reacted poorly because of lack of sleep, loss of patience or just feeling overwhelmed. My kids understand, and again I think it normalizes the idea that we make mistakes or misbehave. There is no shame in making mistakes, you simply need to recognize what you did, apologize, and move forward.
The only other advice I would have is to not give up. Sometimes my kids are receptive to talking about their feelings or heavy subject matter, and sometimes they are not. By continuing to bring the subject matter up it gives them the ability to choose the time they feel most comfortable talking. It also shows them that their feelings matter to me and that I really do want to know their thoughts.
CP: How can parents provide a safe place for their children to open up about any shame they might be feeling?
Maher: For our family, there are a few things we do when someone wants to talk about their feelings. First, we make sure we have the right time to talk. You want to be able to do it with no interruptions and where you can give your child your full attention — no phones, no computers, no siblings. That may mean going into their room and closing their door or going to a restaurant with them for some one-on-one time.
Secondly, we try to listen to everything they are saying before responding. Sometimes it may feel like we know what our child is feeling or what they are trying to say. But it is better if you let your child find the words. If they cannot seem to find the words you can ask questions to help them find the words they need.
Finally, we do not laugh or ridicule what we are told in those discussions. It may feel like a simple or silly problem, but to your child it is a major concern. They need to know they can share their heart and you will take them seriously. It also means that we do not share those talks with their siblings or with others unless they say it is OK.
Making time, listening, and taking them seriously gives our kids the freedom to share their hearts. It is not always a perfect system, but I have found that with persistence our kids are learning to put words to their feelings and they have been reaching out to us with more frequency than before.
CP: What advice do you have for a parent whose child is dealing with shame?
Maher: Well, first I would say that it is TOTALLY normal. We all face shame. This is actually an opportunity for you to teach your child a more balanced and healthy way to deal with it. Rather than them having to be fearful or hide their shame, you can help them learn to talk about it with a trusted adult. You can show them how important it is to share their feelings and their heart.
I would also say, just from my own journey into healing, that this is not a one talk cure all. Your child will have to process shame countless times throughout their lives. As long as you create a safe and open method of communication with them, you can help them not feel so alone in it. You can help reinforce positive shame resilience and help them to live a life that is not dominated by shame.
CP: You write about how children can use their superpowers to combat The Awfulizer. And when they do, they become Awesomizers. What tips can you share now to help children become Awesomizers?
Maher: I think there are a few things you can do to encourage your child to become an Awesomizer, and in a large part they tie in to how to instill confidence and positivity because that is what an Awesomizer does, they find the awesome.
In my personal journey, the first time I think I awesomized was when I started a journal where I had to write five good things that happened to me every day. I wasn’t in a place where I could say positive things that I liked about myself, but I could start to look around me and try and find the good.
That journal slowly shifted to listing things that I was proud of myself for doing. So something as simple as having your child list three good things that happened to them is a way to help them always focus on the positive and give more weight to the good in their lives than the negative.
As a counselor friend reminded me though, you cannot purely focus on achievements or talents because that can turn into perfectionism and shame can sneak in at times of failure. It is so important to help your child find an innate sense of self-worth, outside of what they do or don’t do. One of the ways to start this process is with a phrase or mantra. This is a simple phrase that reinforces to them that they are good and they are loved, period. They do not have to earn it, they can’t lose it, it is inherent within them. An example may be: “I deserve to be loved because I breathe.” “I am good because I am me.”
Those are two easy ways to help your child find their Awesomizer. You can do them as a family or it could be something you work on one-on-one with your child. The important thing is to have fun with it and to make it your own.
CP: The Awfulizer is the first book in the Truth Tellers series, can you tell us why you think they decided to kick off the series with the topic of shame?
Maher: I think any of the Truth Tellers subjects would be excellent to start the series. I personally have written about shame because I feel it has had the greatest impact on my life and because I noticed a need for a children’s resource on the subject.
CP: What other topics can people expect to come from this series?
I believe the series will be including anger and fear as well as a few other emotions. Keep an eye on the National Center for Youth Issues to see what new Truth Tellers there will be!
The Awfulizer is now available for preorder here.