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Are You Embarrassed by Your Child's Behavior? 5 Ways to Cope

by James Lehman, MSW
Are You Embarrassed by Your Child's Behavior? 5 Ways to Cope

When you have a child who acts out, throws tantrums or is disrespectful, their embarrassing behavior can make you want to curl up into a little ball and hide. Here, James Lehman, MSW gives you some tips on how to cope—and how to teach your child the skills he needs.

Many parents struggle with embarrassment when their kids act out. Often, this feeling is an emotional reaction to some imagined condemnation or judgment, not something that is actually occurring. If your child is screaming in the mall and another parent looks at you, you may feel like they’re judging you or thinking that you’re a bad parent, and you might be embarrassed. But let’s be honest, the only way to really tell what they’re thinking is if they turn to you and say, “You are a terrible parent.” For all you know, they might be saying to themselves, “My gosh, I remember when my son did that”; or “Boy, I’m glad I’m not going through that anymore with my daughter.” This brings me to the first rule about feeling embarrassed by your child’s behavior:

Ask yourself, “What does my child need from me right now?” I think this is the most important question a parent can ask when their child is having a hard time.

1. You are Not a Mind-reader.
When your child is acting out and you’re feeling judged by others, I think you have to stop and say to yourself, “I can’t read other people’s minds.” The truth is that if you try to imagine what others are thinking, 95 percent of the time, you’re going to read something negative there. That’s because whenever we’re negative, we interpret other people's perceptions of us as negative. Let me put it another way: in these situations we don’t read people’s minds in search of hope. We read them in search of condemnation—especially when something is going wrong. So when you feel yourself trying to guess what your neighbor, your mother-in-law, or your friends are thinking, just tell yourself, “I’m not a mind-reader, I don’t know what they’re thinking.” Stop the tape that’s playing in your head and move on. This is also part of the process of learning how to talk to yourself in a way that promotes calmness, rather than panic.

2. Focus on the behavior at hand: It’s Not All about You—It’s about Your Child.
Remember, if your child is having a hard time, as the popular saying goes, “It’s not all about you.” Whether you’re embarrassed, afraid, irritated or angry at something your child has done, you have to stay focused on what he needs from you in that moment. Not what somebody else thinks. So ask yourself, “What does my child need from me right now?” I think this is the most important question a parent can ask when their child is having a hard time.

Keep the focus on your child and try not to get distracted. When kids act out in any way, one of the things they’re telling you is that they need some help. As a parent, you know your child best, so don’t be afraid to give them what they need. Sometimes your child needs attention. At other times, your child needs to be taken away from a stimulating environment, or have limits set. And at other times, your child just needs reassurance. Whatever it may be, focus on what your child needs; do not focus on reading other people’s minds and trying to figure out what they’re thinking of you.

3. Don’t Justify Yourself or Make Excuses.
Try not to justify yourself and make excuses when your child acts out or behaves inappropriately. Instead, make directive statements. Let’s say you’re at a party, and your child gets angry and starts yelling when you ask him to go sit down. Don’t invite people to offer their opinions or criticism. I think you can cut them off at the pass by saying something like, “I’m sorry, my son needs me right now”; or “This is his way of letting me know that he needs me.” When you say it that way, you’re not defending yourself against anything; you’re really just making clear, positive statements.

4. Instead of Responding to the Feeling of Embarrassment, Have a Plan.
If you have a plan in place for when your child acts out, you’re going to feel less embarrassed and more in control. Let’s say your family is going to a neighborhood barbecue. Before you leave, take your child aside and say, “Remember, if you swear at me, yell or are rude, we’re going to go home and you’re going to get a consequence for that behavior.” Your child says he understands, but even with this procedure spelled out, he starts yelling and curses at you in front of the other guests when you ask him to wash up.

First of all, understand that this experience is still going to be embarrassing. You can’t take away your feelings; you can only teach your child how to act more appropriately by setting firm limits and following through on them. Look at it this way: you can learn judo and self-defense and carry mace, but when you go into that parking lot at night, you’re still going to feel afraid. So know that you can’t take away those feelings of embarrassment when your child acts inappropriately—but you can have a plan in place that teaches him how to behave better the next time it happens.

By the way, in this situation, again don’t justify yourself or your actions—just leave. Tell the host, “Listen, I’ll call you later,” and go home. Don’t start making excuses and blaming yourself. As I said before, I don’t want you on the defensive, explaining your decisions to people. It’s none of their business unless your child did something to them. Show the host that you’re dealing with it, and tell them that you’ll be in touch later. Instead of asking other people for forgiveness for your child’s inappropriate behavior—because that’s what we want to do when we’re embarrassed—give your child what he needs and don’t over-explain your actions. You might have an urge to apologize for your child’s behavior problems, but don’t do it. It’s not healthy for you. Instead, you can call the host of the party later and say, “You know, I’m really sorry my son did that, but we’re dealing with it.”

Keep the focus of the interaction between you and your child, and on what he needs from you, not on what the other adults around you need. What your child requires in this case is some direct, immediate attention. The more you’re able to respond in these situations and follow through consistently, the more you’ll strengthen the parts of you that can defend your psyche against criticism.

After your child has acted out, when you’re driving home from the party, the mall, or the school function, you should not be replaying what you imagine everyone thought about your child’s behavior in your head. Parents will often drive home saying, “Oh man, they looked at me like I was an idiot. They’re going to talk about me at school; he knows my cousin.” But I think you need to forget about that; you can’t replay those feelings because it will only make them worse. I think that we have to be careful of these negative thoughts because they block us from being able to focus on our kids. A helpful thing to say to yourself is, “I can’t change the past, but I’m doing what I can about the problem now.” Say that to yourself a few times and hopefully it will help you focus on the task at hand.

5. Use “Avoid” and “Escape” as Short-term Strategies
When planning ahead for situations or outings where your child has acted out in the past, the strategies known as "Avoid" and "Escape" can be very helpful. This means you should "Avoid" people, stimulation and situations for which your child has not yet developed coping skills, and "Escape" situations in which your child’s coping skills break down.

As parents of kids with behavior problems, we should have two primary goals: the first is to get to bed tonight without a crisis. The second is to help our child learn long–term coping and problem-solving sills. The “Avoid” and “Escape” strategies deal with the first goal. We avoid situations our child is not ready for; we escape situations in which his skills get overwhelmed. Don’t confuse this with teaching your child coping skills. If your child can’t cope with the stimulation of a supermarket, you should avoid it for the time being, but you will have to come up with a way to teach him how to deal with the stimulation of shopping eventually. The same goes for Escape. If you’re at the mall, escaping that situation is a great short term response to a tantrum or screaming match, but over the long term, your child will need to learn coping skills to deal with that environment and how to deal in an appropriate way in those situations.

The Avoid and Escape strategies can help you in the following way. Imagine that you and your child are going to a party and you’re not sure if you should avoid it. Now imagine that you have an escape plan concerning how to handle the situation in case things start to break down. This will help considerably with any feelings of embarrassment you may have, because you’ll be in control of the situation. Remember, the main thing is to give your child what he needs in that moment and to be in control. Once you have that tool in your belt, you’ll spend less time reading other people’s minds and more time focusing on helping your child.

If you are in this situation with your child, I want you to realize that you can’t avoid your feelings, but you can manage situations in a way where those feelings won’t control you anymore. To put it succinctly, it’s not about controlling your feelings—it’s about managing the situation effectively.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

I really enjoy reading your articles. I can relate. I have an 8 year old son who has trouble in social situations. Your articles always make me remember not to Sweat the Small Stuff!!

Comment By : MontrealMom

Thanks! This article translated my kid's behavior into something I can understand. Also, by teaching me to not overreact, it instantly communicates to my kid the exact same thing.

Comment By : Mamasita

Wonderful concept. Too bad I didn't have this kind of help when My Children were very young. I was always more worried about what other people were thinking than what does my child need.

Comment By : gmurray

FROM LKLINC, I KNOW THIS ALL TO WELL I AM A FOSTER PARENT . WHEN WE FRIST GOT THE 10 YR OLD WE ADOPTED IN APRIL OF LAST YEAR. YOU COULD NOT TAKE HER TO A STORE BECAUSE SHE WOULD LIE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORE IF SHE DIDN`T GET WHAT SHE WANTED AND SCREAM. UNTIL YOU TOOK HER FROM THE STORE , AT THIS TIME SHE WAS 7 YRS OLD , AND HER FATHER WOULD NOT TAKE HER TO THE STORE BECAUSE SHE WOULD ACT THIS WAY, SO SHE GOT TO THE POINT SHE DIDN`T LIKE TO BE AROUND PEOPLE. I DESIDED TO TELL HER BEFORE WE WENT TO THE STORE WHERE WE WERE GOING AND IF I HAD ANY PROBLEMS SHE WOULD HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE CONSIQUENCES WHEN SHE GOT HOME. THE FIRST 6 MONTH SHE KEPT IT UP YES IT TOOK 6 MONTHS , AND SHE STILL TRY THIS EVERY NOW AND AGAIN BUT IT STOPS REAL QUICK. SO WHEN YOU SAY TO LEAVE THE PLACE WHERE IT IS ALL HAPPENING SOME TIMES I HAVE TO LOOK AT THE SITUATION AND SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING BECAUSE SOME TIMES IT IS JUST BECAUSE SHE WANTS TO LEAVE ,SO I HAVE TO TELL HER THAT IF IT KEEPS GOING SHE WILL GET CONSIQUENCES. BECAUSE IF I TAKE HER HOME SHE WILL SAY THANKS MOM I DIDN`T WANT TO BE THERE BECAUSE SHE DOESN`T LIKE TO BE AROUND A LOT OF PEOPLE . SHE HAS HAD SOCIAL ANXIETTY SINCE WE HAVE GOTTEN HER AND WE LOVE HER VERY MUCH AND DONT WANT HER TO HAVE PROBLEMS BEING AROUND OTHER PEOPLE. SINCERLY LINDA( AMBERS MOM )

Comment By : linda

Great strategie ideas, but what about when your not there? Playdates, school, babysitter?

Comment By : Dean

Thank you. I have a 12 year old son who still has trouble sitting still or quiet in a restaurant. He does deal with anxiety, but I never imagined this acting out was due to the anxiety. I'm a single mom with two boys and usually don't have anyone else to help me when we are in one of these situations. We've had to leave restaurants before. It has been very embarrasing, but I've had to get up, leave the food on the table, pay at the front (with an apology), and take my kids home. Unfortunately, it has hurt my other son to have to leave when he didn't do anything wrong. Avoiding these places in the first place would have been a very sensible thing because we wouldn't have to go through the embarrassment. But I feel better thinking I don't owe it to the restaurant to apologize. They still get paid for the food and service. And I'm taking the annoying child out so their customers aren't interrupted. I will have to think about other places we have these problems and avoid them for a while. My question is, do these kids ever grow out of it?

Comment By : mombee

i go through the same things but my question is what to do when the dr puts my 13 yr old son on meds that don't work now and didn't work in the past? it seems like the adhd meds do the reverse reaction instead of slowing him down they make him more hyper and i can't take him to the stores like that. i very often take him at all due to his behaviors but i think its due to the meds so what should i do

Comment By : andrea pennell

I'm responding to the person that talked about their child on meds. Some "professionals" wanted to put my grandson, whom I am raising on meds...said he had ADHD and defiant disorder. I refused because I know my grandson and disagree. Yes, he definately can be defiant. However, that is why I purchased the Total Transformation program. To better my skills. I disagree with medicate...unless of course there is a legitimate diagnosis. I think too many children are on too many meds today. And I agree with James, who cares what the others are thinking... my job is to attend to my child needs.

Comment By : Lilliane

i have a 13 year old adopted son who has always been defient and rebellious since we got him at 2 years old. when ever we are in a public place, he would not listen to us and ignored us because he was around a lot of people and he knew that we would not discipline him in a public place. when we would get home, we would have to deal with his disobedience and punish him. it made my husband and i feel like not taking him anywhere! he is constantly embarrassing us with his actions and the things that he says to people that is really non of his business or their business. i forgot to tell you at the beginning, that he is on ritalin and abilify and is still very defient and rebellious. even at school, there are problems that the teacher doesn't really deal with and just lets him get away with things. if you tell him to do something or not to do something, he automatically would do the opposite. he has been diagnosed with ADHD, RAD, CONDUCT DISORDER, ANGER MANAGEMENT DISORDER, ODD, ETC. he has just turned 14 last month and has been caught SHOP LIFTING! we have taken him to councilling sessions and nothing seems to work. for our last resort, we have been advised and have come to our conclusion, that he needs a strict boarding school with 24/7 discipline and a tight schedule. so that is what we are in the process of getting ready to do. this of course, is our last resort. but our marriage is suffering and also we have a daughter that is very upset all the time because of the frustrations that we have to continually deal with in our home, etc. i really don't believe in sending your child away to a boarding school unless he/she cannot be controlled in the home or at a regular school, etc. we are planning to be ready to carry him to this special christian boarding school in florida sometime in may. my husband and i will be praying for him daily as he adjusts to this different envirement. we will also be able to visit him every 2 months for a weekend.

Comment By : a very concerned and stressed out mother

This article is so helpful to me. About three weeks ago my three kids and I were in church.(we were late) They walked ahead of me and sat four rows from the pulpit. (they all had an excited, playful energy) My youngest who is 12 yrs old was already acting out when we got there, bothering his sister and not listening. So as soon as we were settled in he started his act!!! First it was, "mom I'm bored what do I do? I told him to play outside on the playground or he could go to the kids class. Of course the options I gave him were not good enough. So he started saying, "mom, mom, mom, mom" very loud in the middle of the sermon. I was too embarrassed to walk out and face the people, so I stayed there the whole time! I wanted to crawl out of there! A lady came up to me after, and told me if I knew about the kids classes. It's still been three weeks since I have last gone, and I don't trust him in public, because he knows it triggers me. I do give consequences, but my consistency sucks. It seems like it is an everyday thing and I am just so tired.

Comment By : Susan

* Dear Andrea, Be sure to let your prescribing physician know the symptoms you were trying to treat are still present. If you are working with a pediatrician, they might recommend that you begin to work with a child psychiatrist. These physicians specialize in ‘psychotropic drugs’ and their effects on our bodies. Stimulants are only one type of medication used for treating ADHD and do not work in all cases. Your physician might recommend trying the non-stimulant medications that are used to treat ADHD. Some kids do need the help of medications in addition to learning behavioral skills in order to be able to pay attention, reduce hyperactivity and impulsiveness in order to be more successful academically and socially. Trying a new medication can require a period of trial and error. This is normal although not easy to experience. Help your child know what to expect and have him report to you any reactions that you then share with his physician. Good luck and keep in touch with us.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

What if this happens on vacation? Do you leave the theme parks when your 8 year old starts yelling and being disrespectful and your 5 and 6 year old boys are bonkers, out of control, not listening? How do you avoid/correct the behavior without ruining the vacation???

Comment By : lisa

May I add that some change in the daily diet of the persons in question will be of additional help for example the parent and the child might like to cut down on their intake of salt which tend to raise the blood pressure or restrict the excess sugar intake. Remembering that any behavioral imbalance will always have an underlying emotional,physiological and spiritual imbalance will give the parent a more realistic view of the situation. Hence helping to choose the most balanced approach towards the problem at hand.

Comment By : Hope

iam a stay home mom with 4 children age 9,11,12,and 13.they get As i and Bs grades in school,behave well in school except the last one thinks the school is not fair that is why he is always in trouble.my biggest problem is most of the time say 75%they do not obey me,but 100% they will obey their Dad.i think this is not fair because i sacrifice more for them,i do more stuff with and for them.

Comment By : jose

what if the child acts out on purpose to make the family have to get up and leave whatever it is that we are doing because they want to be somewhere else? Yes the child still did not get to do what he or she wanted but having to leave something we are all enjoying except one person doesn't make sense. ex.. child doesnt want to go to florida with family for a 4 day getaway..wants to stay with friends.. most of the ride there acts out, then in public at dinner acts out.. you know where i am going with this.. what alternative do you suggest than having to get up and leave or leave that child behind, which i feel is giving in to them? thanks

Comment By : cindy

* Dear Cindy: You raise a good question. I think your situation is just a little bit different then what James is addressing in this article where he’s discussing being embarrassed by kids who need to develop skills of self control. Your set-up feels more like using what James calls ‘Anger with an Angle’. James describes this as training others to avoid making you angry “or else”, creating a situation where the family walks on eggshells or the child will ‘lose control’ if he doesn’t get his way. James wrote a specific article to address this situation called: Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage? http://empoweringparents.com/Emotional-Blackmail-Is-Your-Childs-Behavior-Holding-You-Hostage.php In that article he suggests addressing this behavior in small steps. You might go out together for a quick fast food meal and tell your son that you know he doesn’t prefer this but he’s got to find a way to successfully manage his feelings in settings that may test his patience. He needs to find a replacement thought other than the one he’s focusing on when frustration starts building because that thought will eventually lead him to act out. Share with him how you manage yourself when you feel frustrated. Let him know that you expect him to try to get better at this and if he won’t even try, they will be a consequence. Try your best to not allow a lot of moodiness effect your meal out—in other words ignore it. Don’t require him to be ‘cheerful’ at this first outing. Be satisfied if he doesn’t act out so badly that you are forced to leave. All new skills require practice and repetition. Give him opportunities to practice that gradually involve increasing amounts of time.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a 5 year old,I am a single mother, but when he was ! year old I left him with my mom ,so I could go to work in another state, 6 months later I came for him, but my mother said that the day I left he was hitting himself in the wall. His dad passed away when he was 2 1/2, and my stepfather is like the father figure he never had,. WE get along fine, but sometimes my parents do not let me dicipline my child, and when they dicipline my child I do get angry cause they don't let me do my job.ANd sometimes we argue, a lot" My son and I own a home but he does not want to live with me alone, he wants everyone to live with him. When we go out sometimes he throws tantrums and hits me,. Especially when I don't do what he says. I barely have problems because of things, his problems are: I must lisen to him , I must play with him, I must not leave him, I must go whetever he wants to go ,etc. I do spank him when there is nothing to control him. If I get to play with him I really enjoy but sometimes I get tired, but he does not understand. He is very smart, but when he comes from pre-k, he does not want to tell me what happened, what he did. He talks more to my stepdad. WE took him to the doctor, and he said that he was fine , no hyperactivity or anything, he was just a kid.But when I take him to school the teachers tell me that he does not obey , or fights to0 much or that he is to0 quiet. I am a very quite person , I might say like a loner, but I dont have problems and honestly I get mad so easily, especially with my son ,cause he does not lisen , does not want to do chores, or do his home work. Although I take him, places, buy him sometimes what he wants, play with him, I show affection but sometimes he rejectes me or feels embarresed. HOw do I know if its a problem I have? How to know if he needs me more? What can I do to discipline my son?

Comment By : Will

* Will, You ask some good questions here. James Lehman likes to remind parents that inappropriate behavior is not caused by a parent failing to give enough time, money, or affection. He explains that acting out behavior does occur because a child has poor problem solving skills. It sounds like you are having a tough time and that you’re seeking some tools that will help your son to master self-control. Saying no to a child is a very common trigger and it’s important to work with your child on how he can manage his frustration and anger in ways that aren’t harmful to himself or anybody else. It is important that you model this to your son. How do you take care of your anger in a way that isn’t hurtful? You mention spanking him. We wouldn’t recommend being physical with your son, especially because he is hitting you. I’d like to include some articles that will cover the importance of setting limits and saying no as well as teaching your son how to handle that anger appropriately. It might be helpful to ask your son’s teachers or his pediatrician about local supports available to help you and your son learn some new skills and to work on your relationship. I wish you well and please let us know how it goes. http://empoweringparents.com/blog/consequences/dr-joan-its-ok-to-say-no/ http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Stop-Aggressive-Behavior-in-Young-Children.php

Comment By : Tina Wakefield, Parental Support Line Advisor

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