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When your child does something that embarrasses you

Being a parent can be downright embarrassing at times.

  • Your toddler has a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store.
  • You get called to the principal’s office because of something your child said or did at school.
  • Your teenager says something obnoxious or edgy at a family reunion.
  • You get the picture! 

The question, of course, is how to respond to these all-too-common scenarios.

How can you manage your own feelings of embarrassment so that you are able to respond in a way that is helpful (as opposed to harmful) to your child?


Start out by acknowledging that this is hard – because it is.

There’s no doubt about it: it can be challenging to handle the more cringeworthy moments of parenting: those moments when your child says or does something that is downright embarrassing to you. Say, the classic candy aisle meltdown… Basically, you’re being called upon to be “your best parenting self” at the very moment when you feel least equipped to do so: when your brain is being flooded with emotion and you feel like every single person in the grocery store is judging you and waiting to see what you will do next. You can almost imagine your fellow shoppers reaching for the popcorn and placing bets with one another about how well (or how terribly) you are going to handle this:

“I bet he’s going to give in to the candy request!”

“I bet she’s going to start yelling at the kid!” 

Trust me, it doesn’t feel great!

Parenting is challenging at the best of times – and knowing that you’re parenting in public only serves to make it 100 times harder! And these days, it can feel like you’re just one smartphone click away from becoming the internet’s next bad parenting meme.


Recognize how much power you have in this moment.

Sure, you might feel completely powerless – like your shrieking toddler is the one who holds all the cards – but actually, the opposite is true. You have a huge amount of power in this moment. You have the power to choose how to respond – a decision that will play a major role in determining what will happen next. Will your actions help to calm your child, or will they escalate the conflict, pulling you and your child into a messy and very public tug-of-war, a situation where you’re likely to say or do something you might regret?

You’ve reached a turning point, in other words. And it all starts with you gaining control of your own thoughts and feelings so that you can make a conscious decision about how to respond to your child.


Hit the pause button on your own emotions.

A critical first step in managing your emotions is allowing yourself to acknowledge whatever it is you’re feeling – and odds are, you’re feeling a lot of different things all at once. In addition to feeling embarrassed (“Everyone is staring at me and thinking I’m the world’s worst parent!”), you might also be feeling angry at or frustrated with your child (“Why can’t you just behave? Why does everything have to be a battle with you?”) 

Add to that a layer of guilt (“Good parents don’t ever feel angry with their kids! Why am I such a terrible parent?”) and you can see that you’ve got a cocktail of emotions swimming around in your brain.

Hitting the pause button on all those emotions gives you the opportunity to figure out how you want to respond to your child. You want to be able to do your best thinking – something that’s impossible while your mind is being flooded with emotion and all kinds of just plain unhelpful thoughts.

To regain control of your thinking, take a deep breath or count to ten or do whatever else you can do in that moment to calm yourself. Then, start challenging the unhelpful thoughts that only serve to make parenting harder: thoughts that might not even be true.


Switch into detective mode.

Sometimes parents are required to play detective. We have to decode the messages that our kids are sending us. Then, once we’ve managed to figure out what it is that a child is trying to tell us in a moment, we’re in a much stronger position to be able to try to meet the underlying need.

Maybe a child who just had a very public meltdown needs you to help solve a problem. Maybe they would benefit from some hands-on help. Or maybe they just need to have you recognize and validate what they’re feeling: a simple acknowledgement that “this is really hard.” As psychologists like to remind us, “behavior is communication.” Sometimes the messages that our kids communicate to us through their actions and their emotions are far more powerful than what they’re actually able to put into words.


Keep your expectations of your child age-appropriate and realistic.

According to a 2016 study conducted by ZERO TO THREE (a major US child development research organization), there’s a significant gap between what parents think kids are capable of at a given age, and what those kids are actually capable of at that age. The researchers discovered, for example, that nearly half of parents of two-year-olds expect their toddlers to be able to refrain from having a temper tantrum when they’re frustrated when, in fact, that kind of self-control only starts to develop when neurotypical children reach the age of three-and-a-half or four. In other words, it’s normal for toddlers to have difficulty managing their emotions, and failing to understand that simple, yet all-important fact makes parenting so much harder.

Having a basic understanding of child development makes it easier for you to parent in a way that you can feel good about and that brings out the best (as opposed to the worst) in your child. Understanding child development also makes it easier for you to tune out the voices of other people. Instead of worrying about what other people are thinking as they observe your child’s meltdown in the candy aisle (“What a bad parent!” 

“What a bad kid!”), you can focus instead on meeting your child’s needs in this moment and learning from this experience (note to self: Let’s skip the candy aisle next time!)

And, most important of all, you can choose to parent in a way that will build upon the all-important bond between you and your child. Because, after all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?


Ann is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids and Parenting Through the Storm. Her website is


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