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.