She was walking down a hill at camp next to her dad when he accidentally tripped and fell. And rather than the customary, compassionate “Are you okay?” this preteen yelled at her now-prone father. She wasn’t worried. She was embarrassed.
If you have a preteen or teenager, you know exactly the tone of voice with which she said it. It’s part anger, part discomfort, with a little shame mixed in. It may be that you walked outside in your bathrobe. Maybe you wore the “wrong jeans” to her soccer game. Or maybe you just said one word out loud in front of his friends, resulting in a loud, “Mooommm!”
Teenagers feel shame—a lot of it, actually. They often act like we (adults) are the source of that shame. Moms tend to be the biggest targets, and often for something that was totally acceptable before the teenage years—something as trivial as talking to them in public.
Believe it or not, shame is actually a very normal milestone in a child’s development. It coincides with a burgeoning self-awareness, which borders on what we would call narcissism. Somewhere in their preteen or teenage years, kids start to think about themselves and the ways that others see them . . . and they can’t seem to stop.
The renowned psychologist David Elkind coined the phrase “imaginary audience” to describe a phenomenon that takes place during adolescence. You probably remember it from your own teenage years. It is the very powerful belief that throngs of people are watching and critiquing your every move.1