16-45 Segment 2: Dealing with Shame and Bullying

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Bullying and shaming are two of the most damaging activities kids – and many adults – face today. One of our guests discusses the psychological ramifications of bullying and the other relates her own experience as an unwed teen in the 1970s, and how the shame of that incident and the support she received from other young women in the same situation made her stronger and more compassionate to others.

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  • Dr. Frank Farley, Professor of Educational Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA
  • Liz Pryor, author of Look At You Now: My journey from shame to strength

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Dealing with Shame and Becoming Stronger

Marty Peterson: Bullying, trolling, posting unflattering photos and videos online – the Internet is a haven for people who want to put down others these days. The victims of these negative comments and pictures often don’t know who’s doing it or why, and that just amplifies the bad feelings. We’ve also seen how some posters “shame” their victims for being overweight, disabled, from a different culture or religion, or because of something they or a family member has done. These kinds of messages get around, and pretty soon it seems like everyone knows. How do you deal with it to come out stronger and more confident? Our guests have some stories and suggestions. First, though, it’s helpful to understand just what “shame” is.

Dr. Frank Farley: It’s often defined as a powerful and painful emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, disgrace, guilt. So it can overlap with other emotions.

Peterson: That’s Dr. Frank Farley, Professor of Educational Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Farley: You know you can have feelings of failure that might overlap a little bit, might underlie some of the effects of shame. You know we’re often concerned about in our lives of success or failure and the sense that we might be failing or unimportant, or dumb, etc., can be really very negative and powerful emotions. Shame puts together a lot of very negative emotions that sort of impact our self-concept, our self-esteem.

Peterson: Farley says that these days bullying and shaming are so pervasive that they can result in severe mental and physical consequences.

Farley: It can have tremendous impact on people’s self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, their happiness, obviously. It may lead to depression, anxiety, as a subcategory of bullying. You know we know that bullying can really have terrible consequences for kids. It’s been associated with suicide in several cases. So the downside of shaming is extensive and negative.

Peterson: Liz Pryor’s parents understood the power that shame could have over her life – even in the days before Facebook, Twitter and email. Pryor was a teenager from an affluent Chicago suburb who became pregnant in 1979 when she was still in high school. She writes about her life in an out-of-state facility for unwed mothers in her book, Look At You Now: My journey from shame to strength.

Liz Pryor: I personally didn’t know anybody who’d gotten pregnant or certainly hadn’t heard of it. And I do think that my community was not exemplary of all the communities in the country but certainly for the five percent, this was not acceptable. My parents were convinced that if people found out that I got pregnant as a senior in high school, that my life would be ruined. They had been recently divorced, I found out I was pregnant when I was four months along, there was no alternative but to have the child. I agreed, you know, that it would be a good idea to give the baby up for adoption and give that little baby to a family that couldn’t have one. It was obviously not something that was socially acceptable.

Peterson: Pryor says that her parents thought they were sending her to live in a very different facility than she ended up in.

Pryor: They told me I would be going to a Catholic home for unwed mothers and I would live there in hiding. They would tell the community and the family that I was sick and living at the Mayo Clinic. And then when I’d get back, I would graduate from high school and go on to college. So when I arrived at this Catholic home for unwed mothers, I learned it was not a Catholic home it was a government-run facility for wayward, underprivileged, delinquent teenage girls who were pregnant – most of them on leave from juvie hall or the foster care program or the streets.

Peterson: Those girls became Pryor’s friends and, as a privileged girl from the high-rent side of the tracks, she learned a lot from them – not the least of which was that they were open and didn’t hide their pregnancy or their circumstances.

Pryor: When you grow up in the over-privileged you hear about the poor and you hear about crime. I had not idea that there were actual kids whose parents didn’t know where they were, who didn’t love them, who would kick them out of their homes, whose foster parents would rape their children, who…I had absolutely no idea that that reality was going on in another part of our country at that time in my life. I think I really learned, first of all these girls, in retrospect, you know they were all sort of starting way, way behind the starting line in life. I was the oldest one there. Some of these girls were 14, 15, 16 years old. All of them so terribly excited to have a baby, someone they could love and who would love them back.

Peterson: Pryor says that the whole experience in the facility was an eye opener, and transformed her preconceived ideas of what is was like in less affluent and more troubled worlds than her own.

Pryor: They were survivors, these girls, and you know it really, fundamentally, changed the way I sat in the world and then ultimately saw people. The notion that these girls were open to me, first of all, they knew I was a rich girl coming in and hiding, hiding my last name. It’s an amazing juxtaposition to walk in terrified and feel you’re not going to be able to survive and then a few weeks later realize you’re one of the luckiest people in the world.

Peterson: When Pryor returned to her high school to graduate – just a few days after giving birth – she was met with suspicious glances, whispers and even boo’s as she walked across the stage to receive her diploma.

Pryor: So what really happened is when you come back from a situation like this, everybody thinks they know but they’re not sure, and so nobody asks you anything and it just becomes this huge elephant. So when I returned, obviously I’d just had a child, I, you know, I had to get the graduation white dress on and walk in to a bunch of kids I hadn’t seen in five-and-a-half months and, yes, they were looking and staring and some people sort of making fun. And then when my name was called there were a few boo’s. What was really interesting was five months earlier I literally was fighting for my life. I was nervous I was going to be beaten up or hurt. And so coming back to my privileged neighborhood and having people sneer or boo felt like absolutely nothing in comparison to the world I had just left. In other words, I grew up very quickly in a six-month period of time. And we all are just who we are. I mean, in my heart I see sort of carrying the burden of an untold secret as very lonely, slightly fraudulent because people don’t know why you are who you are and you want them to know because you feel so different. That’s the sad part. But the good part was that, you know, going through all of this by myself and having to reckon inside of my own self at such a young age, I think it really built up the inner strength muscle, like massively.

Peterson: Farley says that sometimes feeling shame or being shamed can make a person stronger and send their life in a more positive direction – if it’s done with the right intentions.

Farley: Sometimes shaming could be positive. So, for example, if somebody does something really nasty and you point it out and you highlight it to them, in a sense you’re shaming them, but maybe that will have a positive impact in that the person won’t do that again. But shaming is mostly negative, but sometimes the original motive for the shaming might be positive. Often parents will say to their child, “For shame!” and they’ll point their finger, “For shame!” so you’ve just been corrected for something that you have done that was bad or negative. So that can be a positive side of shaming.

Peterson: More often, though, Farley says that kids who shame or bully don’t have the best intentions, and it can be devastating for a child – especially if it’s done over social media. He has some suggestions for parents whose child might be in this situation.

Farley: Always talk it through. Don’t run away from it, don’t skip over it. Sit down and have a full and open discussion – anything goes. Even if it maybe had to do with “sexting” in some way that was an attempt to shame the child. Therefore it needs full airing by the parents and the child. And, in my view always the best approach is sort of to be rational, to be reasonable, to sort of dissect it and show what the motives were for it and that you are absolutely not deserving of this and emphasize the child’s strong points and point out the nature of people who do that – their sort of nasty qualities, their bullying, sort of aggressive qualities. And you might want to emphasize things like they probably have nothing else to do but this.

Peterson: You can find out more about the journey that Liz Pryor traveled from frightened pregnant teen to confident wife, mother and author in her book, Look At You Now, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to her website at LizPryor.com. To learn more about Dr. Frank Farley and his work at Temple University, log onto their site at Temple.edu. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.