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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

For Parents: Fear of Embarrassment

February 4, 2009

OMG! I am sooo embarrassed!

OMG! I am sooo embarrassed!

“What do you mean you’re not going to wear that shirt any more? You picked it out!  In the store you said it was cool.”

We don’t get it. And they know we don’t get it. But they get it… 180 days a year. That’s why they’re hyper-aware of the fragile pecking order in school. They know that just about anything they do or say could instantly condemn them to the Losers Slag Heap for eternity.

I’m currently working on Book 4 of Middle School Confidential. And I’ve been trying to figure out how to help kids deal with their fear of embarrassment – which for a typical 7th grader is probably life’s most dreaded experience.

You know how when you’re into something new the universe keeps sticking you with opportunities to think about it? Say you start flirting with the idea of going to Nepal, then within  a week, you meet no fewer than 17 people who all happen to have just returned from Kathmandu? Coincidence? I think not!

So yesterday the universe tossed an answer into my driveway in the form of a San Francisco Chronicle article on dieting. The story featured cognitive therapist Dr. Judith Beck, whose new book helps chronic dieters quit fearing hunger so they can relax and stop obsessing about their weight.

What’s that got to do with middle schoolers and embarrassment? The objective of cognitive behavior therapy is (according to Wikipedia, source of all knowledge): “… to identify and monitor thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that are related and accompanied to debilitating negative emotions — to identify those which are dysfunctional, inaccurate or simply unhelpful, and to replace or transcend them with more realistic and useful ones.”

So I’m thinking, if I could:

a) help middle schoolers deconstruct their assumptions about embarrassment

b) help them see that their current strategies for dealing with embarrassing moments just might be making things worse

c) help them rein in the out-of-control fear of embarrassing themselves

d) help them create some more helpful ways of coping with the inevitable (we all have those moments)

…then they just might give themselves permission to see embarrassment for what it is… a normal human emotion that passes quickly if you let it go. And they might actually lighten up on themselves (and their embarrassment-inducing parents). Result? 6th-8th graders just might be willing to put themselves out there more and have fun.

So that’s what I’m working on at the moment.

If you have any comments about what has and hasn’t worked when helping your kids deal with the aftermath of an embarrassing middle school or high school moment, I’d love to hear from you!



  1. Hi there,

    Wow that sounds really interesting. I like the sound of your anti-embarrassment idea a lot. Good luck thinking it through.


    Comment by Fayette — February 7, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

  2. I believe it may all come down to fear… Fear of seeing yourself and being seen as “other” just when a sense of belonging and being “part of” your peer group becomes all important. There is also a fear of showing yourself as being “out of control” when you believe, at age 12, that you should have it all together. If tweens could get the simple truth that “otherness” is a delusion and that when it comes to our emotions, there is no “control.”…. yes we can learn to control our reactions to our emotions, but we don’t get to choose the emotions themselves. If they got that, I believe they’d let go of some of the unattainable standards of behavior they have for themselves. In easing up on themselves, they’d most likely be a whole lot nicer to each other.

    Comment by Annie — February 7, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

  3. Well, this is THE issue of many moments in our lives and especially dominant during these middle school years. Our daughter tells us often that “I just can’t do this or wear that”. She often tells us that she won’t have to be this way in the future but for now, she does… That’s fear allright.

    So even though I usually feel unheard in the very confined dimensions of this age group, we parents have to just keep at inspiring ourselves and them with beauty, courage, history, stories, tastes. That’s the only antidote to embarrassment and fear I’ve ever found.

    Sometime soon, their living larger will be another kind of challenge…

    For now, I’m the voice of challenges to her even though I’ve learned not to expect her to do them, wear it, say it. “You’d look so great in this beautiful fabric.” You have so much to offer playing that character.” “Listen to this. The story in this song is so amazing.”


    Comment by Jane (mother of 13 yr. old girl) — February 10, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  4. Hello Annie,
    Wow! Wonderful topic to put on the table. Middle school seems to mark the first time that kids become hyperaware of their physical being. The need to comb your hair, dress a certain way and become part of a social group comes to the forefront for many kids. The shift in self perception runs head on into the realization that if I am thinking about how I look and act then everyone else might be thinking about how I look and act. Developing a healthy sense of self confidence tops my list of “how-to’s” when it comes to the topic of embarassment. A close second to self-confidence is helping kids readjust their self awareness meter. With the exception of cliques who focus almost exclusively on personal appearance, many middle schoolers spend too much time focused on themselves to scrutinize their peers appearance.

    Another wonderful resource for you to connect with is Mary McElhattan, who I recently met. Her work with teens is incredible and would lend itself wonderfully to this discussion. Let me know if you need an introduction. You can find more information about Mary at and


    Joe Bruzzese

    Comment by Joe Bruzzese — February 12, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  5. Soooo dealing with this now! Our sons changed from small parochial school to larger public middle school this year. Support for their IEP’s has been great, but now my 13yrold is hyper aware that he has an IEP… refuses help of aids, tries to laugh it off which has gotten him in trouble for disrespect. And the girls are just mean mean mean. They jumped on him like super cute fresh meat 1st marking period (shockingly forward for 12yr olds) then nitpicked him on FB 2 months later. UGH. One thing I came up with that seems to help him harks back to the sarcasm I remember using at that age to stay under radar. When the “target” look the kid(s) in the eye and say “Um- yeah- hey- whatever it takes for you to feel good about you, k? Just give me a heads up when you’re ready to move on to another kid so I can stop tuning your out.” Of course, it upped his “snarky/hipster” vibe whihc brought another girl onslaught… SO not ready for this!!!!

    Comment by Jersey Diva Mom — April 19, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  6. Fantastic!

    CBT and this kind of breakdown of how thinking effects emotions and therefore behaviour is not just something that can reduce embarrassment, but also fear, rejection, jealousy, hatred and other negative emotions and thought-patterns.

    If you determine your own self-value solely according to others’ views, then you will always be disappointed. However, learn to instill confidence in a person’s individuality at a young age….to believe in themselves, and they can grow to understand that others opinions are just that – they do not belong to them, but to others. Consider them, appreciate them by all means….but determine your own self-worth according to your own world view.

    How do you want people to act/talk/live?
    Now act/talk/live in that way.

    In this way, children can learn to try their best and be living role models, learning from mistakes without fear, but instead joy, and a sense of pride. Embarrassment denotes a sense of shame about your actions……but how can you feel shame if you are always trying your best to reach your own potential, if you only have your own expectations to live up to?! Think about it….

    And learning to laugh at yourself is also useful. Embarrassment can feel positive and be an ice-breaker that strengthens relationships when you learn to love yourself ‘warts and all’!

    I love embarrassing myself in front of kids! 😀

    Comment by RainGirl — May 5, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

  7. I’m a middle school English teacher and I primarily teach seventh grade. It seems to be helpful when I act as a model and readily admit to my class that I’m very human. I’m tall with big feet and pretty clutzy, so it wouldn’t take too long for them to figure it out anyway. Kids at this age are so sensitive about appearances and they are still trying to figure out who they are. I want my students to see that everyone has value and not to take themselves too seriously. I find it a very challenging age group to teach, but also a very enjoyable one as well.

    Comment by Joan Anderson — July 8, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

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