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:
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.
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.
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.