If you were to look up the definition of embarrassed you would find these words: awkward, self-conscious, uneasy, uncomfortable, unsettled, sheepish, red-faced, blushing, and shy.
As an adult I can look back now and giggle a little on the many childhood memories of Nick doing things that made me as a child and teenager feel embarrassed. However, isn’t that the job of most siblings to annoy and embarrass each other in front of friends?
Well, Nick was no different. Were some of his impulse behaviors embarrassing to a middle school girl trying to look cool in front of her boyfriend? You better believe it. Were some of his habits embarrassing to a freshman in high school, discovering herself in front of her girlfriends? Most definitely.
Nick has always enjoyed making people laugh, and didn’t always know what was appropriate or inappropriate, which would make me cringe. In addition, I would sometimes be in fear of what would upset him (because sometimes he could go from zero to 60 in about 5 seconds), and who would witness these episodes.
Embarrassment is undeniably an emotion that siblings who have a brother or sister with a disability feel. Hell, I think most parents experience this emotion at some point, but might not want to admit to themselves or others. Embarrassment doesn’t resonate because of a sibling’s disability or having a disability. We own and embrace the disability, therefore we are never embarrassed by our sibling as a person, rather it’s the “different” situations that may occur from time to time. The embarrassment has everything to do with the attention being drawn to the family during situations that might look different than the norm, due to the disability.
Most families become accustomed to knowing what to do in moments when a behavior might escalate, when inappropriateness occurs, or a meltdown is brewing. However, when you throw a friend or even a stranger into the mix in these situations, something just feels weird and uncomfortable (especially when you’re in middle school and what other people think about you, is everything).
It is human nature to internalize emotions associated with what others think about us. Sometimes we might naturally avoid a situation so we don’t have to prepare ourselves for that feeling that comes when you think all eyes are on you. In trying to write this blog about the emotion of embarrassment as it relates to having a sibling with a disability, I found it difficult to express this emotion into words.
Growing up, this feeling of embarrassment for me, was in situations that maybe Nick’s behavior wasn’t appropriate or when people didn’t know him. If Nick would act a certain way (behaviors) and in that moment I couldn’t explain the cause or I didn’t know the cause, and if it was in a public place – embarrassed! You feel like everyone is hearing it all, and anxiously waiting for you to do something.
Again, it wasn’t his disability, but rather that uneasy feeling you get when you know people around you don’t understand the disability, or what it is happening.
It’s in those moments you want to wear a disclaimer Billboard: Oh, by the way don’t look at me that way, I got this under control! He has a disability and we are working through to a resolution.
You don’t know whether to stare back at them, explain the situation, throw a few punches, or walk away upset. We tend to avoid these situations so we don’t have to explain; Explain why they didn’t answer when you said hi, explain why they are stimming, explain why they are having a meltdown, or explain why they said something inappropriate.
I always felt the need to explain to my friends, my boyfriend, strangers in Walmart, my teammates, and practically every person I came in contact with in my life. This explanation would allow me to be free from potential future embarrassment if one of the situations mentioned above occurred.
Parents Takeaway: I can’t stress enough how important it is not to minimize your child’s emotions as they experience them. Never shame them. Try to relate to them. It’s not realistic to tell them to not worry about what other people think. Instead, tell them how you have dealt with the anxiety of being in a situation where you might have all eyes on you. Reassure them that other families experience “different” situations whether someone in their family has a disability or not. Give them an “escape” plan of action of what to do when they feel that way. When they start feeling more comfortable in handling situations that draws attention to the “differences” not the disability, then they will gain confidence within which will reduce that embarrassment feeling.
Teachers Takeaway: Disability or not, kids these days are placed in social situations that tend to create anxiety of being embarrassed. If lesson plans can be incorporated with how you deal with the feeling of embarrassment and what actions to take, we will start empowering kids in embarrassing situations instead of them avoiding future encounters or feeling less than. Also incorporate lessons to teach kids that are the onlookers of an embarrassing situation, on how to respond and the action they should play.
Community Member Takeaway: this is tough but be aware. Understand that not all disabilities have a physical characteristic that you can identify to better understand a situation you might encounter, so don’t assume a child is bad, or horrible parenting is occurring, or that the child needs to learn manners through discipline. I know for me the best approach you can do in a situation I described above is to empower. Behavior situation: Walk by, don’t stare or stop, and say “you got this we all have been there”. Inappropriate comment made to you: “Interesting thought or perspective” as your comment back. To summarize, just try not to make anything a big deal. Don’t make it about you, don’t provide insight in that moment, just offer support and look the other way.