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Red Alert: Helping Kids Deal with Embarrassment

embarrassed boy

Alexandra Grablewski

Want to make a 5- or 6-year-old blush? Tell him he's handsome. Introduce him to your boss. Point out how pretty his new friend is. Yep, it's actually that easy.

Although embarrassment doesn't peak until the tween years, those self-conscious emotions occur at ages 5 and 6 too, says Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, Ph.D., associate professor of elementary education at Wheelock College, in Boston. "Children this age are focused on fitting in and on how they look in the eyes of their peers, so being different in any way can cause discomfort," she explains. What's more, school comes with new rules and tasks. Some kids are ashamed when they make a mistake.

While feeling embarrassed can be a positive sign (it indicates the development of personal standards), a kid needs to learn how to cope. Let us help you guide your red-cheeked child back into the comfort zone.

THE SKIN I'M IN

A few years ago, your kid probably was a bit of an exhibitionist -- he didn't mind running around without a shirt or showing off his cool big-kid underwear. But now he's become more private. And then there are those annoying bodily functions. What was once funny (think: boogers or passing gas), can now ruin a kindergartner's life! Okay, not really, but what kid wants to be thought of as gassy?

Kids this age already know that boys and girls have different parts, but now they start paying more attention to other body differences, like height, weight, and the shape and size of eyes, noses, and ears, says Erik A. Fisher, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With. "These comparisons are normal, but if a child sees he's different in some way -- maybe he's overweight, wears glasses, or his nose is bigger than his friends' -- he may feel self-conscious about it," says Dr. Fisher.

Blush Buster To help your kid understand that everyone's body is unique, read It's Okay to Be Different, by Todd Parr, or I Like Me! by Nancy Carlson. "Drive home the point that his body belongs to him and he has the right to privacy," says Kurt Klinepeter, M.D., associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Allow him to close the door when changing clothes and never pressure him to physically interact with someone he doesn't want to (uh, Aunt Kathy and her sloppy kisses). As for bodily functions, keep it simple. Dr. Klinepeter suggests you explain that everyone passes gas, belches, and has the stomach grumbles at times, but if he says excuse me and doesn't make a big deal of it, chances are others won't either.

ALL EYES ON ME

When you introduce your daughter to your co-workers, what happens? She looks at the floor, hides behind you, or blurts out something wacky. Being the center of attention is uncomfortable for many children because they don't know what to do or say in the situation and they worry they'll mess up somehow, says Dr. Villegas-Reimers.

Blush Buster Give her a heads-up. "Let her know you'll be introducing her to some people and that they're excited about meeting her," Dr. Villegas-Reimers says. You can also brainstorm together about things she can do or say so she doesn't feel flustered -- showing them her favorite toy or a picture she drew, for example. If she's re-ally shy, tell the others beforehand so they don't overwhelm her. Also practice what to do when you run into friends unexpectedly. It could be as simple as looking up and saying, "It's nice to meet you," and then waiting patiently (no whispering "Can we go now, Mom?") while you talk.

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GOOFING UP

Suppose your son tripped in the school cafeteria and dropped his lunch on the floor. Or kicked the ball into the other team's goal at a soccer match. Whenever he messes up big-time, he wants to hide. A blunder in front of peers is humiliating for 5- and 6-year-olds because they're trying to make lots of new friends. "They think that other kids won't want to hang out with them after their gaffe," says Dr. Villegas-Reimers.

Blush Buster Tell your child that it's okay to laugh it off. While his first reaction may be to cry or get angry, making a joke out of it or saying something like, 'Now that was silly,' is the way to deflate attention. Remind him to give other kids a break when they make mistakes so they'll do the same for him.

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO

If your daughter's friend knows her full address, your kid must know hers too. Her sister did a back flip? She has to give it a try. A classmate can ice-skate? Your daughter begs you for lessons. Anytime someone does something she can't, it's a huge issue. "Kids in this age group are concerned about what they're doing and how it compares with others," says Dr. Klinepeter. If a child can't do something as well as a peer, she may feel inferior.

Blush Buster Bring the focus back to your child. "Tell her she's doing her best and emphasize the things she can do well," says Dr. Klinepeter. Then explain that everyone has different talents -- and she shouldn't feel bad if she can't do the same thing as her friend. But help her think about how she could learn or improve the skills needed to accomplish -tasks. For instance, if she's upset be-cause she can't tie her sneakers, offer to teach her. Says Dr. Villegas-Reimers: "It will help her realize that although the embarrassment doesn't feel good, she can do something about it."

CRUSH BLUSH

Does your son play with a neighborhood girl but ignore her when his boy pals are around? Maybe he constantly talks about a girl from school but then tells his friends she's "gross." Boy-girl stuff can be super awkward. "A lot of kids still feel that boys play with boys and girls play with girls, so if a boy-girl friendship develops, it may be looked at as unusual by other children," says Dr. Klinepeter.

Blush Buster Don't assume that being friends with a girl means your son "likes" her. Explain that you have male friends and it's no big deal. But if he is love-struck, resist getting all nosy about it. "Let him know everyone has a crush from time to time," says Dr. Fisher. Then if he wants to talk about it, let him. If not, give him space.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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