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When Your Child Is Feeling Embarrassed
Embarrassment – what is that feeling and how can we help a child who is feeling embarrassed?
Embarrassment has been broadly classified as a “self-conscious emotion,” grouped with feelings like pride, guilt, and shame, and is something that we all experience. Perhaps it occurs as the result of an innocent joke or public experience, or because of a comment someone has made toward us. Embarrassment can also be an appropriate and healthy response to a personal mistake or error, offering important internal or societal feedback.
As a parent, what is important to understand about the feeling of embarrassment is its potential depth. Persistent and unaddressed feelings of embarrassment can lead to anxiety in kids and feelings of shame, worry, and fear. It is important to encourage kids to reflect on these uncomfortable feelings. Even if they may struggle to access the right words, we can help them make sense of their feelings. By helping them understand their emotions and how to respond to them, we are supporting them in building confidence and resilience and strengthening their ability to be reflective, which are valuable skills to possess.
How can embarrassment be felt in the body?
Embarrassment brings physiological reactions, including flushed cheeks, sweating, or stuttering. In order to understand a highly social emotion like embarrassment, it can be helpful to explore the science behind what happens in the brain after an experience that causes embarrassment. The pregenual anterior cingulate cortex is a tissue that resides deep inside our brain and is where the embarrassment center is focused. This region is essential in regulating many automatic bodily functions, such as sweating, heart rate, and breathing. It also participates in many thinking-related functions, like emotions. So, when the brain perceives an experience that causes a person to judge themselves and worry about what others might think of their behavior, this invites strong physiological responses and emotions, and embarrassment is felt.
When people worry about their experience of embarrassment, this worry can sometimes prevent them from engaging in certain behaviors because they are afraid of what other people might think. For example, if a child has an embarrassing experience on the sports field and all the other children laugh, they may fear this experience happening again and refuse to participate in group sports.
What are the common causes of embarrassment for children?
Embarrassing situations are most likely to occur around friends and people that your child cares about. They may often happen at school, at afterschool activities or clubs, or on playdates. Although embarrassing situations happen to everyone from time to time, if your child regularly comes home upset, worried, or with a significant change in mood, there may be something more serious happening that is important to address. If your child is so worried about feeling embarrassed they avoid doing activities that they used to love, they may be struggling with social anxiety and will need help navigating those deep feelings.
It can be tough to notice when our child has experienced embarrassment, and due to the nature of the emotion, they may not be keen to explore what happened. But when we do witness our children feeling embarrassed, we may notice that they turn pink, their eyes may widen, they may run away or cry; they may even withdraw and struggle to do activities that they have previously enjoyed. It can be painful for our kids to explore the feeling but when we do talk about it, it can help them feel better and encourage them to feel confident in the experience rather than to fear it.
How can we help a child feeling embarrassed, and what can we say?
Helping a child who feels embarrassed is all about helping them become the master of their emotions and behavior. Feeling empowered in this way can support them in the growth of their self-esteem and confidence, teach them about resilience, and help them understand their own strengths and abilities. As mentioned earlier, embarrassment is a strong emotional response and it is important to talk through that feeling. Kids may not be so forthcoming with you about why they were embarrassed, but exploring the emotion of embarrassment can help normalize the feeling for them.
How to talk about embarrassment so our kids will listen:
Connect early and often.
Pay attention to your child’s behavior and ask them about their experience in school or with their friends. This encourages them to feel close to you and helps them feel that you are with them in their feeling. You could say:
“I can sense something may have happened at school today. It can be tough to talk about things sometimes when we feel sad. Know that I’m right here if you’d like to talk about anything or if you just want a cuddle.”
Acknowledge the depth of their feeling.
This tells them you hear them, you take their feelings seriously, and you are truly understanding what they are feeling. You could say:
“It sounds like that really made you feel uneasy. Like you wanted the ground to swallow you up so you didn’t have to be in that moment anymore. That must have been so tough for you.”
Normalize the feeling of embarrassment.
You could say:
“Gosh, I wonder if your palms got all sweaty and your heart started racing. You are worried about what everyone else may think. It is normal to respond this way when we’re feeling embarrassed.”
Give explanations and explorations in a language they understand.
These really are teachable moments and they offer our children an opportunity to learn about their own emotions and behavior and help them make sense of themselves. You could say:
“At that moment you felt embarrassed. You felt judged by those around you for what happened. But you also judged yourself, and now you are worried about what they may think of you tomorrow. I wonder what this biggest worry looks like for you?”
Focus on moving forward and model healthy coping skills by offering some perspective.
You could say:
“It might feel like everyone will remember this forever, but…”
Notice and praise their resilience.
You could say:
“Sure, you made a mistake. But you just got straight back up and kept playing even though I know you were worried that people noticed. The way you carried on showed a lot of courage.”
Share with them stories of your own embarrassing experiences.
Not as a comparison, but to offer perspective and to normalize the feeling. You could then explore your own moments of bravery, resilience, and positive coping skills. You could say:
“Shall I share a story of a time when I was really embarrassed? It was hard for me, but I figured out some ways to feel better. I’ll share those with you, too.”
Experiencing embarrassment is a part of life and although it is tempting to protect our kids from difficult things, learning how to deal with these experiences in a healthy way is a skill that will empower our children as they go into the world.