“I wouldn’t be in trouble at school if my mom had just written me an excuse,” complained a teen I was counseling recently. “And the teacher didn’t have to fail me – he could’ve let me off with a warning!” As I listened to this bright 15-year-old kid explain why everyone was at fault for his situation (except himself), I encouraged him to take personal responsibility for his own choices. He looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language or had simply lost my mind.
Rather than being the exception, I think this example has become the rule. No one, from politicians to celebrities to our own kids, seems able to admit they were wrong or take responsibility these days. Everyone seems to be playing "The Blame Game."
A Culture of Blame
As parents, we expect our children to do what so many people don’t – take responsibility. Nothing is more irritating than hearing your kid whine, “It’s not myyyyy fault!” Kids often blame their teachers for their academic performance, their siblings for their misdeeds and if there are no siblings – there’s always the dog. And why not? Blaming others is modeled for our children on a daily basis: by adults, their peers, in the news, across the world.
Ask yourself, “Who is ultimately responsible for my child’s choice in this situation?”
It’s so easy to focus on others when something goes wrong that we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. This has become so widespread that we really notice it when someone actually does take responsibility. In a meeting recently, a co-worker made the statement, “You know what? I didn’t follow through with that task. I apologize. It was my fault. I’ll do it now and it won’t happen again.” Refreshing! I actually complimented the woman afterward on taking personal accountability for her actions. In our society, blame is so commonplace that we’re often surprised when someone actually owns up to something with no excuses.
Hey Mom, Can You Hang on to My Responsibility for a Minute?
As parents, it can be so difficult to watch our kids struggle and experience negative consequences in life. When your child was a baby, you were completely responsible for her – what she ate, her safety, everything. You were her caregiver. As your child got older, little by little you started giving her more responsibility; you wanted her to become more independent. But with independence comes choice – and responsibility. It can be intimidating (even downright scary) for both you and your child to let go of that caregiving relationship.
Transitioning from taking total responsibility for your child to allowing her to make mistakes so she can learn and grow from them can be a tough process. We expect our kids to get it wrong sometimes; that’s just life. It’s also part of human nature to be uncomfortable when you have to admit you’ve made a mistake or a poor choice; it’s hard to own that you’ve let someone down or hurt them. Most of us don’t want others to think badly of us and we may worry that we’ll be judged harshly or thought less of as a result of our behavior. We also may want to avoid negative consequences for our actions. After all, when was the last time you said, “Yes officer, I was speeding and I deserve that ticket!”? It’s the same for our kids. They don’t like to feel discomfort any more than adults do. But that’s how we learn and grow – by recognizing and acknowledging our mistakes and then doing things differently in the future, so we don’t feel uncomfortable that way again.
Why Does Everyone Always Blame the Parents?
In society today, there’s been a growing trend of blaming parents for a child’s behavior. Whenever there’s a tragedy or a child behaves in a way that’s dangerous, harmful, irresponsible or “wrong,” people always ask, “Where were his parents?!” Parents, particularly those with kids who are struggling with poor behavior choices, have taken this to heart, internalizing and often blaming themselves. “If I hadn’t had to work as much, maybe my son wouldn’t be so angry. Maybe he wouldn’t get into fights like he does. He tells me all the time it’s my fault and maybe he’s right.” The child gets the message that he’s not responsible for his own behavior and choices—his parents are. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lifetime pattern of blaming others and refusing to take responsibility. It will always be his spouse’s fault, the boss’s fault, the police officer’s fault, or the legal system’s fault.
Here are a few tips when you find yourself – or others – blaming you for your child’s behavior:
- Keep the focus where it belongs – on your child’s behavior. The teen I was talking about earlier wanted the focus on anything other than his poor choices and behavior at school and was prepared to shift attention to his mom so she would be the one “in trouble” rather than himself. When you hear someone trying to blame, respond with, “Let’s stay focused on the issue and the behavior we want to address right now.” (If you’re the parent of a defiant child, we discuss how to keep the focus where it belongs in The ODD Lifeline.)
- Balance your parental responsibility with your child’s accountability. Ask yourself, “Who is ultimately responsible for my child’s choice in this situation?” If you find you need to put more effort into modeling certain behaviors for your child, that’s fine; accept responsibility for what you feel is truly your job as a parent and allow your child to accept responsibility for his own job as a human being. Your ultimate goal is to raise a child who will be able to function responsibly in the adult world.
- Keep the Big Picture in mind. Yes, you gave birth to your child. You guide him, care for him and prepare him for the Real World. But he’s here as more than just your child. He’s here to make this life his own, to learn and to grow. Blaming yourself for his behavior doesn’t help him in those life tasks. If anything, it stunts his ability to figure out for himself what he’s comfortable with, what decisions feel good and right to him, and what kind of person he’s going to be when he grows up.
- Create a Culture of Accountability. You can’t control what goes on in the news, what the talk show hosts put out on the airwaves or what your neighbor does. But accountability can start at home. When we blame ourselves for our child’s struggles, it leads to guilt and shame. Shame is a “Parenting Paralyzer”: it renders us ineffective when it comes to responding to our child. This can lead to us avoid holding our child accountable – we make excuses for him and rationalize his behavior by saying things like, “Well, my son’s mom was too hard on him when he was younger, that’s why he’s acting this way.” Or “The reason my teen daughter behaves badly is because we got divorced when she was younger. It’s not her fault.”
Understand that this is not helpful to our children or to us. In fact, it encourages blaming others. If you feel guilty or ashamed for things you’ve done as a parent, take accountability and move forward. By doing this, you’re modeling for your child – and others – a culture of accountability. (James and Janet Lehman’s Total Transformation Program centers in part around this concept, and effectively teaches parents how to do this with their kids.)
Remember, if your child is always blaming others, he never has to change—and he probably won’t. If, on the other hand, you hold him accountable, he will be on the path to becoming a responsible, well–adjusted adult.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.