Handling Parental Embarrassment

Apr 24, 2022

We have all been there – your child throws a tantrum of epic proportions in the most public place. You suddenly panic, it feels like every other adult is staring at you, and even worse judging you. In these moments, every worst fear you have had about yourself and parenting abilities seems to bubbling up. So, we panic as it feels like everyone else in the room wants you to fix it, and fix it now.

First, let’s take a second to remember that tantrums are a part of typical development. When a baby is born, they have a few skills, or primitive reflexes, in order to get their needs met: crying and moving their bodies. It is our role as parents to provide them with skills in order to get their needs met that helps them move past only using tantrums.

You may be thinking, but why did they seem so happy and peaceful until those toddler years? Surprise! They have actually hit a stage of development! During the age of 2 to 3, children are experiencing what psychologist Erik Erikson called “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.” Let’s break that down – it means that children have met some developmental milestones and are realizing they want some independence. What does that produce? Will. For some, the battle of wills is more than others. This is also the stage of toilet training and greater exploration of foods, both which your child is likely telling you their preferences. We tend to give “will” a bad rap, because we want our children to do what we say immediately, but this quality can be incredibly useful later in life (I’ll get back to this in a second).

At this point, language is growing rapidly and some of their favorite words are likely “no” and “mine.” What powerful words! While these can be frustrating at time, these words reflect they have met a cognitive milestone (hoping this makes you feel better 😊). During this stage, we need to provide our children with structured opportunities to have control so that it fills this need (We have a great video in our course called “The Control Exchange”).

As your children grow, there will likely still be hills and valleys of when their behavior is great (and you feel like an amazing parent) and when their behavior goes through a rough patch (and you are wondering what went wrong?).

Let’s get all parents on the same page: Your child’s behavior is not a reflection of you. Let’s clarify – yes, clearly we think it is important to establish a strong attachment, teach good skills, and provide structure. But, even when you do this our kids are human, have emotions, and make mistakes.

Ross Greene has an excellent graphic which essentially reflects that our children use undesirable behaviors when the requirements of the situation are above their skill set. Isn’t that an amazing way to view our children’s behavior? Rather than feeling personally attacked (we have been there, we get it), take a second to examine the situation. You may be thinking, “but they know how to pick up their toys, its not a skill deficit.” Sure, but is it because they have a low frustration tolerance? Do they have words to describe their emotions? The goal is to teach them skills to handle the situation, not to take away anything that be difficult for them in the moment.


How does this play out in real life? Once our family was out to dinner and my son threw a tantrum in which he left the table, fell to the ground, cried, screamed, and kicked and hit the ground. Talk about a scene. Instead of carrying him to the car while covering my face, or giving in to his demands of dessert, I remained calm, told him his behavior would not change our minds, and the rest of us continued eating. You know what he quickly figured out? The people he wanted to get attention from and try to control were letting him be upset, and the rest of the restaurant was looking at him and he did not want them to. He picked himself up from the ground, came back to the table, and we were able to hug and talk to each other. This comes up in different ways throughout the lifespan – maybe your child said something unkind to a friend, was disrespectful to an adult, or gave a bold face “no” in front of other people. The same principles apply: we remain calm and provide them instruction (the third tier of our parenting course breaks down how to correct behavior by teaching skills if you want to learn more!)

Let’s remind ourselves again: “My child’s behavior is not a reflection of me.” The best thing we can do in these heightened moments is to remain calm. This is definitely easier said than done, but it is a similar skill set: self-control. There are some tangible ways to remain calm in the moment – ask your partner for help, take deep breaths, walk away for a few moments, or repeat the mantra in the first sentence to yourself.

Let’s get back to that topic of will. When your child is a teenager we want them to have a strong enough sense of self to say "no" to peer pressure and make the right decision. While it sure would be easier if we could turn this “on” and “off” so that they would listen to us but not others, it doesn’t work this way. It is our job as parents to help them gain self-control and learn critical thinking skills, not follow people blindly as this sets them up to be taken advantage of by friends or partners.

The next time you see someone struggling with their kid in public, give them a smile, tell them some encouraging words, or maybe salute Katniss Everdeen style.

~Dr. Jordana Mortimer

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