The question was: “What about when adolescents are embarrassed by their parents?” It’s a good topic because the answer cuts in many powerful ways.
To begin, embarrassment for an adolescent is not a trivial emotion. This is an age when developing adequacy on many fronts is what growing up is all about: adequate independence, knowledge, physical attractiveness, verbal quickness, daring, popularity, worldly experience, social competence, cool possessions, or athletic achievement, for example.
Embarrassment is an uncomfortable response to some public exposure that demonstrates personal deficiency and so sets one apart from the crowd. Unwanted social attention now causes a degree of painful self-consciousness for being judged awkward, inadequate, or otherwise clumsy or ineffective. For the adolescent, it can be isolating in the moment and, if it lasts, can bring the sting of humiliation which is one small step toward shame – an abiding sense of personal disgrace. “I’ll never live this down!” In addition, fear of embarrassment can have an inhibiting effect. “I’d rather not try than risk looking foolish.”
Particularly during the more socially cruel years of middle school, one objective of mean teasing is to put someone down and socially embarrass them, be it a rival or a hapless social victim, in either case gaining a measure of social ascendency. The purpose of mean teasing is to make public fun of how someone is or what they do: “You don’t know that?”, “You’re so dumb,” “You’re so fat,” “You’re such a loser,” “You dress so last year!” “You’re so weird.” “You’re so out of it.” It’s when on-lookers laugh that embarrassment gathers humiliating power.
One watershed moment that demarcates the end of childhood and the onset of adolescence is when parents become a social embarrassment to be seen with outside of home, like showing up at school. It’s the difference between how happy the 1st grader is at a parent’s surprise visit to the classroom (“Hey, look’s who’s here!”) and how mortified the 6th grader is at such an unwelcome intrusion (“Mom, Dad, what are you doing here?”) The child loves being identified with parental company, and feels proud of the association. The early adolescent, however, feels his or her growing independent status is diminished by being seen in the parental presence out in the world.
Of course, asserting freedom of independence is just half of adolescence; establishing sufficient individuality for a unique identity is the other. So as one differentiates from childhood one also wants to differentiate from parents, contrasting oneself to them and now more sensitive to, and easily embarrassed by, ways they are that you don’t want to be – in appearance, interests, values, tastes, habits, and other traits. The lesson is: accept that once the journey to independence begins, parental company in public is going to be less comfortable and parental characteristics are going to be less acceptable than they used to be, both because of potential embarrassment’s sake.
When parents are the agents of embarrassment because of what they intentionally or unintentionally do, don’t do, or say, adolescents can feel betrayed and angry. For example, unintentionally, a dad causes his 7th grader enormous embarrassment by lapsing into a term of endearment the man had used in the boy’s early childhood. “Snookie,” calls the father to his son before the young man is about to leave with a group of male friends, “I need to ask you one more thing.” “Snookie?” laughs one of the friends, and then the other three take it up: “Hey, Snookie, let’s go!” The boy blushed with pain to be baby-named in front of his teenage buddies, to be treated as younger than his age, to have his dad arm them with a nickname they’re going to tease him with and maybe spread around for other guys to use, a name he wishes he’d never been called. How could his father be so insensitive and do this to him, to hurt him so? The lesson is: it’s really important for parents to treat their teenager in age-appropriate ways in front of the young person’s friends.
Or unmindfully, a parent takes the teenager to task in front of his friends, creating embarrassment that places the young man in an untenable position. “You’re not going anywhere with anyone until you apologize for what you said to your little brother!” Act submissive when a parent is pulling rank on him and he loses face with friends for not standing up to adult authority. The lesson is: conduct the demands of family privately with your teenager, and not in front of friends.
Or unintentionally, a mom who wants to welcome her freshman daughter’s new friends from high school when they come over for the first time starts asking them very specific questions about their families to express interest and better get to know them. But she is acting friendly in a ways the classmates find intrusive and so soon make excuses to leave, leaving the daughter embarrassed by the woman’s behavior, and so feeling embarrassed for herself. “How could you ask so much about people you don’t even know, who don’t know you? You made me feel like a fool! Why can’t you cool it with the questions?” And next time the mom heeds her daughter’s advice. The lesson is: parents need to declare and promise that if they ever act in ways that embarrass their teenager and are so told, that they will correct that behavior and not do it again.
Then there is more intentional parental embarrassment: deliberately putting the adolescent on the spot in some way, often in the form of teasing, sometimes out of a misguided sense of play, sometimes out of a desire for influence, sometimes out of pure hostility.
So in play the mom teases her son about just graduating from puberty: “All the girls better watch out for you now!” She was meaning to lovingly embarrass her son into appreciating his more grown up appearance, but he took it like a sarcastic swipe at his sexual inexperience that he was already feeling insecure about. “That’s not funny, Mom!” The lesson is: if the teasing isn’t fun or funny to your teenager, then it’s not fun or funny, so cut it out.
Or, to maintain influence with his older teenage daughter, the dad teases her about what he fears she will do by embarrassing her to keep her from it. “Go to a party looking like a druggie and you’ll get what you look you’re ready for.” In this case, what he meant as a warning came across as an embarrassing attack on her dress when she was already not confident about what to wear for the challenging evening ahead. So in her defense she angrily responded: “Drugs and sex is all you think I ever do!” The lesson is: if you have some important concerns about your adolescent, don’t use embarrassment to get your point across.
Or, the hostile dad, feeling personally diminished after watching his son fumble away the game, deliberately embarrasses the young man to punish him for performing poorly. To feel better, the man makes public fun of the boy in front of some other disappointed parents: “You carry a football like it was a piece of soap!” When a couple of the parents smile, the boy lets his father have it: “Thanks for kicking me when I’m down. You’re just the kind of dad nobody needs!” The lesson is: embarrass your teenager with intent to hurt and you may end up doing damage you come to later regret.
It all comes down to this. Because adolescence is filled with enough embarrassing moments, young people don’t need the help of parents, where parents can help it, to provide any more.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Physical Affection from Parents