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"It's Not Fair!" How to Stop Victim Mentality and Thinking in Kids

by Janet Lehman, MSW
It's Not  Fair! How to Stop Victim Mentality and Thinking in Kids

"It's not my fault. That's not fair!" How many times has your child shouted this when she’s upset? Although it’s often difficult to know how to respond to this as a parent, understand that it’s normal for children and teens to feel this way from time to time. Kids have keener “fairness detectors” than we do because their perspective is still quite unrealistic. The danger comes in when your child holds onto this feeling of injustice all the time, and begins to feel like a victim chronically. When this happens, you will see her begin to use this stance to manipulate people and get what she wants.

Related: Does your child manipulate you with bad behavior?

When your child feels like a victim, he will begin to act like a victim. He’ll start thinking, “When something isn’t fair, the rules don’t apply to me.” That’s when you’ll see your child punch a hole in your kitchen wall and then blame his little brother for making him mad. Or you’ll hear your teen say, “I didn’t have the money for this make-up, so I stole it.” This cycle of Unfairness-Victim Stance-Manipulation often starts at home; parents unwittingly play into it. Sadly, the behavior can transfer to other areas of your child’s life. If your ten-year-old thinks you aren’t being fair, it frequently later becomes, “My teacher isn’t fair; school isn’t fair, my coach isn’t fair.” If unchecked, this mindset can continue into the teen years and eventually into your child’s adult life, and will turn into a chronic state of mind. You’ll hear, “My boss isn’t fair,” or “It’s my spouse’s fault.” Remember, fairness detectors become keener as we play into them. We teach kids to be victims and to whine—and to become complaining, whining adults.

What complicates matters is that sometimes there are situations that really are unfair. I’ll give you an example from my own life. When my son moved up from junior high to high school, he joined a sports team. Unbeknownst to us, this team had an initiation that was physically very aggressive. Our son came home after the hazing very upset, and rightly so—it was unfair that he was taken advantage of by the larger group of boys. While alarmed, my husband James and I knew that we needed to empower him; we didn’t think it was wise to be pulled into how badly our son felt about being hurt by the other kids. We shared the information with the school, but we supported our child in his desire to resolve the problem. As difficult as it was for us, we knew we had to respect his decision to handle as much of it as he could. In the end, the lesson he learned was that he wasn’t a victim; he was someone who could move forward out of a painful situation and get through it, proud of the way he handled it.

Related: How to communicate effectively with your teen.

I think it’s extremely important for you to give your child the message that you will support him in finding a solution to his problems—and that being a victim doesn’t define who he is as a person. If kids are allowed to stay in that victim stance, it doesn’t help them move through it. This perspective will slowly take over how they view the world: as an unjust and unfair place. In my thirty years as a therapist, I have seen this negative mindset affect kids’ relationships and ultimately, their ability to succeed in life.

So what should you do if you think your child has adopted the victim stance? How can you respond?

1. Be clear. Be very clear about injustice and fairness. We used to say to our son, “You’re right, sometimes life isn’t fair. But you still have to do your homework.” I think you have to say these words with some caring. Kids pick up on it if you’re sarcastic or harsh. And remember, this is a hard lesson to learn—and for most kids, these are pretty genuine feelings.

Show some genuine empathy toward your child, even as you explain that there are things that aren’t fair in our lives. The most important piece to teach your kids is how to deal with that unfairness, and how to move beyond that.

Itís okay for kids to feel distressed about things being unjust or unfair, but itís not okay for them to manipulate others to get their way.

2. Problem solve. Ask your child how she is planning to deal with the injustice she perceives. Say she is on a sports team, but feels like she’s not being played enough. There are always people who are going to be star athletes, and that’s hard for someone who’s been there, done all the training and practice, but is still sitting on the bench. As parents, we need to help our kids understand this life lesson. Encourage her to keep trying her best, and give her examples of how similar things have happened to you in the past. The message here is, “It’s just part of life—and how we handle it is what’s most important.”

Related: Want better behavior? Teach your child problem-solving skills.

3. Don’t let guilt dictate your response. When you have the sense that your child is being treated unfairly, it’s easy to try to make up for this by indulging him: you might take care of his responsibilities or give him material goods like clothing, electronics, and money. Look back to see where that pattern of indulging your child’s view of himself as a victim might have begun. Maybe he was bullied when he was younger, or perhaps you and your spouse got divorced, and you felt guilty over it. But understand that this just makes things worse in the long run, because your child learns that someone is going to make up for it when he thinks things are unjust. The bottom line is that when we start from a guilty place, we’re more likely to support that sense of victimhood in our kids.

4. Don’t feed into injustice or deny it. You’re not going to make something that’s unfair to your child better as a parent if you feed into her sense of victimhood or injustice. If the teacher hasn’t been fair in your child’s eyes, it’s not going to help if you say, “That teacher always treats you badly. I don’t think he likes you.” This will do nothing to help the situation because it just feeds into your child’s view of herself as a victim.

On the other hand, I don’t recommend that you argue with your child about it, either. I don’t think any of us are going to be dissuaded from a sense of unfairness when we feel it. Remember, this is an emotion, not a true or false question. If your child feels something is unfair, someone else telling her it is fair won’t really change how she feels. So don’t argue with your child about it; just be clear and empathetic.

5. You can always change your response. Even if you’ve been supporting your child’s views of the unfairness of the world—and himself as a victim—for a long time, you can always change as a parent. It’s never too late. Sometimes it just takes you saying, “I’m not going to feed into my child’s attitudes about injustice anymore; instead, I’m going to start helping him problem solve how he can deal with things from now on.”


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

My son's victim mentality always comes from his sense that his siblings get away with everything. He is the oldest child, and several times a week, I hear that's-not-fair sentiments. I'm not sure how to help him Problem Solve in this situation.

Comment By : mom of 3

I liked the article. I would however like some suggestions for an older teen (almost 18) who has been doing this for a long time and uses it heavily to manipulate people. He won't listen to me anymore when I try to talk to him, and that is probably my fault, for not understanding proper techniques for talking to kids when he was young. I would like to know, Is it too late for a "born again" parent to help a young person (almost 18 y.o.) find the strength to help himself. Or at this point, should I just let him try to work things out for himself and pray that he does.

Comment By : Born Again Parent

My son also falls into this trap and I'm afraid it has become all-consuming. He is the oldest (13) of 4 and he's the only boy. His father wants absolutely nothing to do with him and he blames me for this, likely because I am conveniently nearby whereas his father is in Virginia. To be fair, my girls' father wants nothing to do with them, either, but this same mentality does not plague them like it does my son. As an example, my eldest daughter (12) dances with the local ballet company and my 2 youngest daughters (8 and 7) are competitive gymnasts. I have told all the children that if they wish to continue with their EC activities, they must bring home A's and B's on their report cards. My girls do this; my son not so much. It's not that he's incapable of getting A's and B's (he did it the first grading period), but when his grades began to slip and he failed 2 classes the 2nd grading period, I pulled him from the school's athletics program. Instead of motivating him to do better, he's told anyone and everyone who'll indulge him for 5 minutes that I like his sisters better, I treat them better, and I don't care about him. I try as best as a single parent can to apply the rules consistently to all the children, but I just can't get through to him.

Comment By : stressed mom of 4

Not sure if this will get posted since I'm recommending a book, but QBQ - The Question Behind the Question, gives kids and adults a very simple approach to get out of playing the victim and blaming others, to focusing on what can be done. We have one teenager that is especially prone to victim thinking and blaming others for every choice, every injustice (perceived) in her life. Since we have had her read parts of the book and report to us what she has learned, we have seen some small steps out of that way of thinking.

Comment By : eugene

To stressed mom of 4... I also am a mom of 4. It's very hard to find proper consequences to your child's actions but I'd like to offer a small piece of advice that was once given to me. Don't ever punish your child by taking away something that is constructive and possitive (ie. sports, music lessons). Instead take away things that are not constructive (ie. TV, video games, cell phones, going out w/ friends). It made a big difference with my 4. Good Luck!

Comment By : mom of 4 too

I believe it's very important to put the solution to the problem back in the child's lap. The "what will you do?" scenario and I do this all the time. My 14 year old used to blame his teachers all the time for bad grades, lost assignments, failed tests, until I drilled into him this same mentality; what will you do? He had to stop playing the victim and come up with his own solutions. I empathized with him, but I also let him know that his teachers couldn't do the work for him and couldn't pass his test for him either. He had to redo the assignments and retake the tests for better grades and next time, do the assignments the first time so he didn't have to waste TV/video/cell time redo them over again the second time. I believe that can work for 18 year olds as well; what will you do to pay the rent, own a car, get a job, further your education? Let them become thier own problem solvers, not just problem makers.

Comment By : luvmykidz

* To ĎBorn Again Parentí: It sounds like you have some regrets about the way you have parented your son. Take comfort in knowing that you have always done the best you could. Now that you are developing a new understanding of your role as a parent, you can start making some changes. The best way to help your son change is to start with yourself. Think of it this way: youíve been dancing and youíve been doing a foxtrot, and now youíre going to switch it up and start doing a waltz. If you think of your son as your dancing partner, then itís easy to see that your change will cause a change in him and how he responds to you. It can be more challenging with older teens, and it can be rough at first, but itís worth the effort and consistency. You can apply all of the suggestions in Janet Lehmanís article, though they may only one part of the process for you. This article by James Lehman will offer additional ideas and helpful suggestions: It's Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively. We wish you all the best.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

To stressed: I understand your thinking in taking away his sports activity, but I'm afraid it may have been counter productive in this case. The fact is that schools have a no pass - no play system... so if he failed a class he would not have been allowed to play anyway. He would have had to sit on the bench/sidelines and be embarassed and frustrated. Honestly, that is a better consequence than being pulled from the team. It allows him to experience the natural and pre-set consequence of his actions, and you can be the person on the sidelines saying "I'm so sorry... what are YOU going to do to get back on that field/court/whatever and make sure this doesn't happen again?

Comment By : Stormy

My ten year old son is adopted. He has been with me for two years. He was put up for adoption due to neglect. It appeared that the only way that he could get attention from his birth mother was to become a victim in any way possible... either by acting scared of things, getting hurt, or someone being mean to him. He has become the ultimate victim. Unfortunately while in foster care, people continued to feel sorry for him. Now, two years later he is the perpetual victim and I am exasperated and at my wits-end with him. To the point that I feel so insensative towards him. He manipulates me as well because I do feel bad for all he's been through. But I need to figure SOMETHING out so that he does not remain stuck in this perpetual victim stage for the rest of his life. HELP!!!!!!!

Comment By : VictimsMom

* To ĎVictimsMomí: It sounds like you are concerned about your sonís behavior. The best way to break the pattern here is to stop treating him like a victim. Changing this particular behavior has everything to do with your reaction to it. If you feel that you are being manipulated, walk away and take some time to think things through before you respond. As long as blaming and excuses work, they will keep coming. Itís important to gently challenge his thinking errors and put the responsibility back on him to get his work done, do his chores, or whatever it may be. This will take some time and some commitment on your part but with consistency it can be done. When you sense yourself about to give in to his victim thinking, stop and think about your long-term goals for himóhow do you want him to become as he grows older? Remind yourself that you are not responsible for his past; you are responsible for doing what you can today to help him become a responsible young man. Here is an article that gives you some information on how to challenge victim thinking as well as one about how to avoid giving in. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I'm lost with my 10 year old son, who has for the most part always been a good kid. But myself and his father are not and have not been together since he was real young and I have remarried. It's been few years since my son has had a step father and step brother, but my son has never accepted them. He is always in competition with his 8 year old step brother and does not respecto or listen to myhusband. The problem is he goes to his father and fathers family playing the victim, saying how he is not treated fairly, my husband emotionally abuses him by yelling and swearing at him regularly when he is really just being punished as he should be(which my husband rarely does to avoid problems). He has made up some pretty ridiculous stories that they(fathers family) always believes! And lets my son know how they don't agree and don't like his step father and has even told him once to lie to my husband by saying he was taking the dog out and run away and grandma will pick him up around the corner. I just don't know what to do, becuase I now cant get my son to see things for how they are and accept responsibility for his own actions. He even started telling stories at school to teachers, students, the nurse, anyone who will listen and feel bad for him.

Comment By : Totally lost

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victim mentality, victim thinking, its not fair, unfair rules, not my fault, accountability

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