I recently came across an article in Psychology Today called The One Emotion That Really Hurts Your Brain, which discusses a study’s findings that humiliation makes the brain feel very uncomfortable. What struck me about this article, however, was not the outcome of the study, but rather the fact that we, as a society, experience humiliation on a regular basis, sometimes without even realizing it.
The article describes that being corrected by someone else can be a humiliating experience. In fact, “humiliation is defined as the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others.” I’m sure we can all think of at least one time in the past year when we’ve felt humiliation, be it at work, at home, in front of friends, at the gym, etc. If you’re anything like me, you may feel humiliated for a little while, but then, because you have coping mechanisms that you’ve learned over time, you brush it off. Perhaps you don’t forget, but you try not to let it influence you or your decisions.
Now, let’s think about the types of humiliation that a child may go through—a child that does not have any life experience or any coping mechanisms under his/her belt.
Scenario: Your child’s comments about school that day: “I hate my teacher. I worked hard on my worksheet at school today but when I gave it to her to correct, she said my writing wasn’t clear enough and she made a big red line through the page. Now I have to redo it again for homework.”
Let’s think about how humiliating this is. Your child works hard on his/her assignment and then, with pride, brings it to the teacher. The teacher then rejects the work and tells the child the work isn’t good enough, in front of the whole class. And to make matters worse, the teacher has made a big red line across the page so the child can remember exactly how humiliating he/she felt at that exact moment. The child then has to redo the work for homework and is scared that the teacher will not accept the work the next day unless it’s perfect.
Now, let’s look at some common reactions from parents:
“I can’t believe the teacher did that. It is inappropriate and I’m going to call the school tomorrow to discuss this further.”
“Your teacher is just trying to help you so that when you get older, people will be able to read what you wrote and take you seriously.”
“Make sure that you do your best writing this time. You always have to hand in your best work. School is very important. How many times do I have to tell you this?”
And here is the reaction that I recommend:
“That sounds like an awful experience. How did that make you feel?” (Child will usually respond with: mad, sad, angry, upset, embarrassed, or the dreaded ‘I don’t care,’ which of course means that they care a lot). Once your child gives a response, make sure to validate how they are feeling. Here’s how:
- Let your child know that you will listen without judgment or blame (be empathetic)
- Allow your child to have and experience their feelings so they can learn coping mechanisms
- Be sensitive and acknowledge that it is embarrassing to be corrected and put down
- Instead of dismissing the problem, let your child know that you understand that it was a big deal and that how your child is feeling matters
- Don’t fix, rescue or try to talk your child out of his/her feelings
- Validate what your child is feeling by saying, “I can see you are feeling __________” and then listen to your child
- Understand that shame does not necessarily just go away because an incident is over
Until next time, happy reading!