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Help! My kids humiliate me in public

When it comes to parenting, occasional embarrassment is just par for the course. But what should you do when you feel perpetually ashamed of your kids’ words and actions?

Toddler having a tantrum |

Photo credit: Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

As parents, we know that we’ll someday embarrass our kids. No big deal. But what kids fail to recognize is that they’ve been an embarrassment since they were born.

If you haven’t already created a mental laundry list of all the times your kids have embarrassed you, we asked a few moms for their real-life experiences. We heard a couple themes:

  • Horrifying manners. “Piper totally kicked rocks all over a guy’s food at Taco Bus and refused to apologize,” says Andi Graham from Big Sea Design. “We spent ten minutes trying to force it out of her and she was such a jerk.”
  • Overexposure. Kim from Dirty Diaper Laundry had a similarly mortifying experience when she had to empty her Diva Cup in a public restroom with her young children in tow. “In a full public restroom where all could hear, my 4-year-old asked, ‘Mommy, what is in that cup? Are you pooping in the cup? Mommy what is that thing for? Are you going to get a drink with your little cup? Where did the cup go?'”
  • Choice words. Pregnant mom Marisa Lasko was aghast when her 3-year-old asked her in a crowded grocery store, “Mommy, did you decide if you’re going to have the doctor cut the new baby out of your stomach, or push it out your butt?”

Unfortunately, the embarrassment you feel as a parent is a bit of a tricky emotion. It’s normal to feel your face flush when your children do something weird or crazy. As a parent, though, you need to check your embarrassment if you sense that it’s turning into humiliation. Constant feelings of humiliation aren’t good for you or your kid.

Embarrassed or humiliated?

You can think of the difference between embarrassment and humiliation as the difference between a breeze and a tornado — they are different levels of the same emotion.

Let’s take the classic example of a kid freaking out in the grocery store line because he wants a candy bar. An embarrassed mom feels self-conscious and awkward as other parents watch how the meltdown is managed. The mom in this scenario is usually thinking something along the lines of, “Heh, this is uncomfortable, I wonder what I should do to contain this situation?”

A humiliated mom, however, will approach the meltdown very differently because the emotional stakes are higher. The underlying emotions of awkwardness are similar, but the embarrassment is felt so strongly that it’s experienced as anger, blaming and shaming. A humiliated mom is often thinking, “I can’t believe this kid is doing this to me again!”

Humiliation can prove dangerous to the parent-child relationship because it takes mom or dad out of the driver’s seat. Quite often, humiliated parents find themselves more committed to banishing their own shame than they are to parenting their children properly during those embarrassing, teachable moments.

So what’s a parent to do?

There’s no getting away from the fact that your kids will occasionally do things that cause embarrassment. However, you do have the choice to respond differently during those moments. Consider turning down the volume on your emotions so that your embarrassment doesn’t morph into humiliation:

  • Lower the stakes. Try laughing when you’re embarrassed. Doing so will invite others to laugh with you, so that feelings and discomfort don’t escalate.
  • Put people in their place. Most experiences of humiliation are rooted in your beliefs about what people are thinking of you. Recall that the people you see in public — particularly those who are parents — have been exactly where you are and usually aren’t judging you. If you’ve surrounded yourself with people who do judge you, please reconsider. Give yourself a break by spending time with kind people who won’t harshly judge your parenting.
  • Face the truth. Your kid isn’t a superstar or prodigy — he or she is a small human being who makes mistakes. Embracing your child’s humanity will prevent both of you from feeling discouraged or humiliated when mistakes inevitably happen.
  • Give your kids praise. Remember that kids like negative attention more than they like no attention (and parental humiliation counts as negative attention). Give your children positive attention and praise to avoid the acting-out behaviors that can cause embarrassment.
  • Appreciate your boundaries. Finally, recognize that there is a clear boundary between you and your child. Her choices don’t necessarily reflect on you and your parenting skills. The more you’re able to separate your identity from your child’s success, the less likely you’ll feel personally humiliated when your kid makes a mistake.

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