Why So Sensitive? Adolescence and Embarrassment

When personal peculiarity or inadequacy are paid public attention

Posted Oct 14, 2013

There are two emotional states in adolescence that parents often trivialize and discount that can actually be very serious indeed. The first is Embarrassment (subject of this blog); the second is Boredom (subject of the next.)

Begin with Embarrassment—a startled response to having one’s individuality or inadequacy unexpectedly made the uncomfortable object of public attention, often humorously for the fun of others, which can result in feelings of social exposure, self-consciousness, isolation, anxiety, humiliation, and even shame.

Adolescents are very easy to embarrass because this is the age of in-between when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult, and can be criticized on both fronts for either presuming to act too old or for not acting old enough. Sometimes it feels like one can’t win for losing as the young person stumbles their way to young adulthood through the trial and error process of growing up. Along the way there is much to learn, to mistake, to correct, to recover from, and to adjust to.

For example, there is coping with the physical changes and social outcomes of puberty, keeping up and staying connected with peers, fitting into popular norms and measuring up to media ideals, developing worldly knowledge and experience, and acting more responsible and mature. This is a perfect age for embarrassment because there are frequent missteps that lead to feeling awkward and insecure.

How can one be embarrassed? Consider what peers might publicly say.

Ignorance: “You don’t know that?”

Incompetence: “You can’t do that?”

Inappropriateness: “You don’t know better?”

Inexperience: “You’ve never done that?”

Performance: “Is that the best you can do?”

Immaturity: “You haven’t done that yet?”

Unattractiveness: “You’re wearing that?”

Identity: “You want to be like that?”

Taste: “You enjoy that?”

Belief: “You think that?”

Conduct: “You did that?”

Seeing vulnerability in you to make fun of, your good friends (perhaps to divert attention from their insecurities) can sometimes act like your worst enemies.

The emotional impact of embarrassment can be intense. Because of humorous or critical attention paid to his apparent individuality or inadequacy, the adolescent can feel held up to question, like the eyes of the whole world are focused on him. Caught in the sudden headlights of public notice, he may wish for the moment that he could just disappear. He may fear that lasting social damage has been done. He may feel put on a spot from which there is no social escape if it becomes part of his ongoing social reputation.

If embarrassment is powerful enough it can lead to social avoidance and (and for a while) withdrawal: “I can’t face anyone! I’ll never live this down!” (This statement made in response to being casually "broken up with" in middle school by a boyfriend who didn’t take going together as seriously as she did.) Fortunately, public memory of such episodes is usually mercifully short. Unfortunately, personal memory can last a lot longer. I paint this harsh side of embarrassment so parents can appreciate how frightening and painful it can be, and can resolve never to knowingly embarrass their adolescent.

It’s easy for them to be blinded by their adult sense that being occasionally embarrassed is no big or lasting deal. Parents usually have a more confident and settled sense of themselves than in adolescence when personal uncertainty was the rule. Where the adult is comparatively fully formed, the adolescent is very much a work in process, insecure and prone to embarrassment on that account.

Forgetting what it was like to feel so vulnerable, adults can tease a teenager in honest fun, even affection, unmindful of the sensitivity they playfully attack. Then they can be surprised by the reaction they get in response as the young person storms off apparently angry, but actually hurt, smarting from the exposure: “It’s NOT funny!” As for other adults, those few teachers or coaches in school for example, who employ embarrassment for classroom or team control, publicly demeaning one student or player as an example to intimidate the rest, such bullying authority may yield obedience, but at the cost of respect.

Sometimes, to give adults an emotional reference for the teenager’s embarrassment they can relate to I’ll ask if they ever have any performance fears, stage fright, interview anxiety, social jitters, party discomfort, or nervousness about public speaking. Although not exactly the same, such sensitivity to personal exposure and fear of public scrutiny may be comparable to the emotional distress that adolescent embarrassment can cause.

To the extent possible, I believe that homes should be tease-free zones for adolescents, and that parents should not knowingly embarrass their teenager by teasing. It’s not “funny” or “cute” to see the young person avert their eyes, shrink back, stammer, blush, or even sweat. And for sure, never use sarcasm to cut the adolescent down. However, these provisos do not cover the unintended embarrassment parents can be when their son or daughter enters early adolescence (around 9–13.) Now the young person usually wants to conduct their world of friendships more separately from parents, the mere company of who can compromise and threaten the social independence that feels so important to at this stage.

For many of these young people, to be seen with one’s parents in public by friends can feel like an embarrassment. Thus the middle school student may not want parents to show up at school or attend school events as spectators of her or his performance. A lot of respectful deals are cut at this point, the parent offering, “We do want to see your game, but we are willing to make our presence as least intrusive and offensive as possible by not drawing attention to ourselves or to you, sitting quietly out of the way, and having you come to meet us at the car after the event and after goodbyes to friends are said.”

The adolescent capacity to withstand embarrassment seems to me to depend a lot on strength of self-esteem—a combination of how broadly a young person defines themselves and how kindly they evaluate themselves. A teenager with high self-esteem can often laugh and pass the painful exposure off in ways a young person with low self-esteem may not. So seeing a peer put down and laughed at, the insecure witness says to herself: “I’d just die of embarrassment if that happened to me!” But people don’t die of embarrassment; they just fear they emotionally might.

And now, driven by that fear, the young person may embrace shyness, that psychological refuge where they feel both safe from company and sorry to miss it, where they remain socially invisible but wish they were better known. Fear of embarrassment causes them to shut up, hang back, keep to themselves, stay out of the way, and avoid interacting to prevent painful social exposure.

Unhappily, at least in undergraduate classes to which I am occasionally invited to speak, I see this fear of embarrassment in action, or actually in mute inaction. The silent majority of these college students, now in the fourth and final stage of adolescence (Trial Independence, ages 18-23), shy away from giving voice to their opinions and ideas, raising or answering questions, entering into discussion or debate, to avoid personal exposure and social notice. How sad is that! They refuse to take leadership in their own education.

Sometimes I wonder if this reticent behavior would change if they knew how part of their grade depended on the degree of their spoken participation in class? Of course, at issue is the development of a competence that goes far beyond their classroom education. I am talking about a very basic life skill of high survival value: practicing soken communication to others, particularly those in authority, by speaking up for themselves and about themselves to become socially known and to get their needs met. Shut up in college and it only becomes harder to speak up in adulthood.

Finally, although hard to do, it can be helpful for the adolescent to realize that you cannot be embarrassed without your permission. Ignore exposure and there is no face to lose. Laughing at oneself with the laughers can diminish the power of teasing and reduce the damage felt. Although the experience of embarrassment can be immediately painful, it will usually swiftly pass and not be long remembered by others. And when the price for avoiding social embarrassment is sacrificing important self-expression, it may not be worth the personal cost. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.)

Next week’s entry: Bored to Death: Risks from Boredom in Adolescence