Does your child embarrass you?

Have you ever controlled children’s behavior out of fear of being embarrassed by them?

I had a parent ask me a question related to dealing with the need/desire to control a child because a parent fears embarrassment for the child or him/herself. In this case the child wanted to cut their own hair and a parent didn’t want the child to do it.

This might also apply to other choices a child makes. Perhaps a parent is worried about a boy with long hair being teased or bullied. Or if child chooses their own clothes, there might be fear of embarrassment coming from the parent.

I think it is very common for a child to want to cut their own hair. And I also think it’s common for us to feel uncomfortable about it for whatever reason.

Although it is hard for me to admit, there have been times when I’ve been afraid of being embarrassed or feeling uncomfortable because the children in my life acted differently from other children.

It happened much more when I was earlier in my journey as a parent who was letting go of control.

There was an extended family member whom I perceived to be very judgmental of my parenting and life choices.  I was still unsure about all the changes we made in our lives and my lack of clarity showed up in him. I even observed my child being teased by adult friends of this family member. It was very painful for me and I learned a great deal about myself from the experience.

From a very personal perspective I understand this question and struggle.

One of the things I think is so common for us as parents who are coming from a place of wanting freedom, trust, and respect with children, is that we bump up against past experiences that trigger us.

So a parent who is embarrassed by the behavior of a child, or has fear that a child will be made fun of, has a great opportunity to explore the origin of the fear.

What I have found in my experiences and in coaching parents is that our own painful childhood experiences show up as fear for a child.

If we experienced being teased or not being accepted by others, we will likely still be holding onto the feelings of those experiences.

We are unconsciously carrying that fear/pain and we project it onto children.

As a child, we may not have had anyone we could turn to and talk about what we were experiencing. Or the adult might have responded and said, “it’s okay honey, you’ll find friends” or perhaps dismissed the pain of the experience.

Maybe we just “sucked it up” and put up with the teasing. Maybe we even teased others for fear of not being accepted. All of those are possibilities.

The fear and pain left from those experiences are hot buttons (or triggers).

When we see a child in our life doing the same thing or having the same experience it brings up for us the pain we experienced in our childhood. The leftover emotions are still there.

As children if we didn’t have safe adults in our lives who could help us make sense of all the feelings we had, those emotions didn’t just magically disappeared. They remained hidden until we experienced a similar situation, in this case, with a child in our life.

So here some suggestions for dealing with fear of embarrassment.

Step 1: Open yourself up the feelings you’re experiencing

Acknowledge all of your feelings. Whether it is fear, anger, upset, anxiety, sadness, embarrassment, anything.

Whether it is a desire to cut her own hair, or even a visit to the dentist or to a person’s home who we feel will judge us and the child.

Be willing to name the feelings you have and bring them out into the open. Too often we bury these uncomfortable feelings. When we do that they continue to have hold over us and we are more likely to be reactive.

Sometimes this step may need to be accompanied by lots of deep breathing, to create openness to the intensity of feelings you might be experiencing.

Step 2. Identify the automatic thoughts that are popping up

You will have lots of thoughts that pop into your head when you are feeling fear or anxiety.  Identifying the automatic thoughts without censoring helps you to create awareness. You are trying to just notice the thoughts. Not judge them.

So for example:

If I let them cut their hair…
a. They will look horrible and everyone will stare at them
b. I will be ashamed when I take them out
c. I’m afraid that CPS might be called because they will look neglected
d. Other kids are so mean, they will make fun of her
e. My parents (or in-laws) will say sh*t about my parenting AGAIN!
f. I will hate it because I love how she looks with long hair

There might even be the “should” talk going on internally.

“I should let them cut their own hair. If I don’t I’m not a very respectful parent.”

“I should be comfortable with them cutting their hair. What’s wrong with me?”

Often we have two layers of thoughts/self-talk in conflict. The thoughts popping into our heads and the judgment of the thoughts popping into our heads. Letting it out and being aware of the layers helps increase our awareness of the internal process we’re going through!

Step 3: Accepting that the past might be blocking us from being in the present

Very often when a parent is triggered, they may not even be aware of the role of the past right now in the present. Or if there is awareness, the pain that the parent experienced in her own childhood is enough justification to control the child’s behavior in the present.

In this step you want to open the door to the possibility that the very strong reaction you’re feeling, the intensity of the emotions and the desire to control are related to the past.

You don’t have to know how or why it’s related. Just start with the question to yourself, “I wonder how this is related to my childhood?” Or “Where is this coming from?”

When you create some space by asking the question, often the answer will just pop up. It may be an image or feeling from your past. A bit like a flashback. You might even say, “Oh, so that’s where that comes from,” or “Now I know why I feel this way.”

Creating space looks like this. Pause and be still for a moment. Breath deep a few times. And then just ask yourself one of the questions above. Sometimes I will even say to myself, “I am open the discomfort I feel and learning what it means.” And then breath some more.

If the answer doesn’t come, that’s okay. Sometimes it won’t come in the moment, but later one it may come to you. Just like when you forget a word or the name of a person and it comes to you later in the day.

Step 4. Engage in dialogue with the child

As I mentioned in Step 3, you may be trying to avoid the pain of teasing or embarrassment for the child in your life.

Stopping a child from cutting their own hair or drawing on their face with a marker before going out, or encouraging a child to follow stereotypical gender norms, may all be ways you are trying to ensure the child doesn’t experience being teased, or avoiding being embarrassed yourself.

We bring into our relationships the frame of our past. When we’re unaware of this frame, we can interpret an experience very differently than a child does.

Engaging in dialogue starts with seeking first to understand the child’s experience or point of view. The point is not to make sure they understand yours. That would be a lecture.

Try and hold a neutral space to see how the child is feeling.

There have been times when I’ve felt that a child has been the target of teasing. I might ask, hey, how was the park day? What did you think of X situation? Or, what did you think of that person you were playing with?

Try not to lead to a particular answer. Ask the question and listen. Ask for clarification. And know that it’s likely the child will be done with the conversation before you are (this almost always happens with me!)

Step 5: Doing your internal work

As a result of the child wanting to do something that you’re afraid will cause teasing, bullying, or embarrassment, you’ve uncovered some fears that are related to pain from your own childhood.

This is great!

Really.

It’s great because now you can do the internal work that will move your through the pain of your past. And guess what? Often doing steps 1-4 is all the internal work you need to move through the feelings left from your past.

There may be other blocks for you. Perhaps you judge your own thoughts and feelings. You may be aware of them, but haven’t moved to acceptance. You internalized the judgment you experienced as a child and continue this pattern internally as an adult.

For me, this process is sometimes longer and more painful, and sometimes it is very short and I experience immediate relief. All of that variation is just fine.

You may find yourself revisiting similar situations over and over. You may even say to yourself, “Haven’t I figured this out already?” Well, no, maybe you haven’t. And that is just fine too because just as the children in our lives are, we continue to learn and grow everyday.