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Humiliation is one of the most powerfully negative human experiences, and sadly, there are caretakers who will use it to either control or lash out at children. Humiliating a child causes a profound sense of shame and embarrassment, and as anyone who recalls a humiliating experience knows all too well, the social injury can last a long time. In terms of verbal/emotional abuse, humiliation can take several forms:

Criticizing a child in front of peers
When a child invites her friends over for a get-together, her mother takes this opportunity to criticize a child in front of her friends: talking about her weight, how much she eats, disclosing some other embarrassing household tidbit, etc. Or perhaps a father at a sports game chastises his son about how much he “plays like a sissy” in front of his teammates. Such personal attacks in front of peers humiliate a child.

Publicized discipline / scolding
Another common form of humiliation is in the display of unnecessary public scolding. For example, I was at a Wing Stop restaurant waiting on an order, when I witnessed a little girl, perhaps 4-years-old, patiently trying to get her mother’s attention. Mom carried on talking to her friend, not even acknowledging the existence of her daughter. The little girl waited about two minutes, periodically throwing in the “hey mom…” When it became obvious that mom was ignoring her, she started tugging her arm. Out of nowhere, the mom, snarling at her daughter in a loud and unpleasant voice, looked down and said, “Can’t you see I’m talking to grown-ups you little brat!” Everyone in the restaurant turned around, and the child shrunk back in shame, tears welling up in her eyes. You could see both the hurt and anger on her face. Her mother was not only neglecting her emotional needs by refusing to acknowledge the child’s existance or see what she wanted, but she then used humiliation to put her in her place. Of course, it’s this mother who should really be ashamed, though I think her daughter was the only one who absorbed the message. A simple “just a minute, darling” in a calm, rational voice would have acknowledged the child and avoided the need for such humiliating discipline.

Of course, as all parents know, sometimes children give you no choice but to discipline them in public. But there is a big difference between such cases and the over-the-top reactions such as the one just described, in which parents seem to almost be making a point of humiliating a child in public.

Sometimes a child’s caretakers can act like children themselves, and will end up mocking or mimicking a child in a disparaging way. Such actions serve no other purpose but to humiliate and shame, and will evoke both hurt and anger in the child being mocked. They also show a great deal of immaturity on the part of the adult.

Laughing at the child
Laughter can be a wonderful display of positive emotions, but it can also be a powerful weapon when directed against a person. Laughing at a child is a form of humiliation, and this type of humiliation can be extremely potent. People who experience laughter as a means to shame sometimes develop gelotophobia, or fear/discomfort of laughter. “If someone has always experienced laughter as a weapon, not as something you share, then all laughter will sound like negatively motivated laughter,” says psychologist Willibald Ruch. (Gaidos, 2009)

Humiliation disguised as jokes
Another form of humiliation comes when someone makes a hurtful comment about a child disguised as a joke, or when “just playing around.” For example, a parent makes a hurtful comment about a child’s weight or appearance in front of their friends, saying that they are only joking and then brushing it off with recriminations of “you shouldn’t be so sensitive.” Much like a dog doesn’t consider it a joke when a human holds out food and then snatches it away when he grabs for it, ‘jokes’ that are hurtful to a child aren’t really jokes, they’re just hurtful statements.

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