Stop the Blame Game: How to Teach Your Child to Stop Making Excuses and Start Taking Responsibility

by James Lehman, MSW
Stop the Blame Game: How to Teach Your Child to Stop Making Excuses and Start Taking Responsibility

When parents realize that their children might have either a behavioral or learning problem, the first thing many do is blame themselves. Parents are usually very frightened and worried about their children’s behavior. This fear often manifests itself in negative ways. One of those ways is blame.

As problems continue, they start to externalize the blame to other people or institutions. They blame therapists and teachers who are ineffective in managing their child. As the child gets older, parents blame his friends or the neighborhood or the music he listens to. As the child grows into a young adult, they blame drugs and alcohol, or our culture.

The problem with “victim thinking" is that it lessens the expectation that the child will learn to take care of himself in the adult world.

One of the real tragedies of dealing with behaviorally disordered children is when you see everybody blaming each other. The parent blames the teacher, the teacher blames the parent, the child blames both the teacher and the parents, and it goes on and on. I’ve seen many parents get stuck in battles that don’t help their children. Don’t get me wrong, parents often have to battle to get their kids the services they need in the school’s economic environment. But all too often, parents use those issues and others as excuses to justify their child’s lack of behavioral or academic development, and that becomes a habit that’s hard to break. Parents can literally become dependent on blame. After all, it’s easier to fight with the school than it is to fight with behaviorally disordered kids. Again, I’m not minimizing the resistance from schools that parents sometimes experience. But they have to remember to also keep the focus on the child.

Related: How to hold your child or teen accountable.

The major problem with making excuses and giving explanations is that it doesn't help the child learn to manage him or herself or to perform. Blame prevents you from seeing your child in an objective light. Let’s face it, parents have every reason to be afraid for kids who have behavioral problems or learning difficulties. Life is very demanding, and those demands start very early. Blaming and excuse-making go hand-in-hand, and they prevent you from understanding that no matter what the handicapping condition, no matter what the problem, each child has to learn to perform in a socially acceptable manner. Your child has to learn how to solve problems. They have to learn to interact socially as well as learn how to change and grow. It’s true that there are cases where kids have a harder time learning than others. But that should be no excuse, because your child is going to have to be able to perform when he becomes an adult, no matter what.

Excuses, Excuses: What’s Your Kid’s Excuse?
Children shouldn’t be allowed to blame other people, places or things for not meeting expectations or completing tasks. In reality, when a child blames someone else, he’s saying “It’s not my responsibility because I’m a victim of that person, label, or thing.” For instance, in the classic, “My dog ate my homework,” what the child is really saying is  “I’m a victim of the dog, so I shouldn’t be held to the same standard as the other kids.” Make no doubt about it: kids who see themselves as victims and are allowed to perpetuate that rationale have a tough time achieving the very difficult milestones that early life development demands. When kids play the victim game with their parents or teachers, they should be told, “Blaming the dog doesn’t solve your problem. You need to have your homework done by the end of the day or you’ll get a zero.” Parents can also utilize that same analogy when dealing with social situations. “Blaming your sister for why you hit her doesn’t solve the problem of ‘no violence in our home,’ and you know the consequences for hitting.” And have your child perform those consequences immediately. Consequences for inappropriate behaviors should be clearly understood by everyone before incidents occur. Remember, consequences are the results of poor choices, and not the punishment for bad behavior.

On the other hand, when parents make excuses for their children, it’s a way that they minimize the problems their children are having. Often, excuses are simply the explanations. The parent sends a note to school saying, “Tommy wasn’t feeling well. Please accept his lateness to school.” That’s fine. But parents of children with behavioral problems are forced to make explanations every day, and these explanations transform into excuses for the child’s behavior. They excuse the child’s refusal to do schoolwork at home. They make excuses for the child fighting and arguing with other kids, both in and out of the house. They make excuses for the child’s rudeness. Some are very understandable: There’s been a divorce. Or there are family problems at home and the parents are having problems, which manifest themselves in the behavior of the children. Sometimes it’s a learning disability or mental health diagnosis that parents use to try to explain their kid’s unwillingness or inability to perform.

Related: Does your child blame everyone else instead of owning his mistakes?

Let me begin by saying I have empathy for those parents who are dealing with kids who have behavioral and social disorders and learning disabilities. I encourage their efforts to get the right services for their children. Nonetheless, my experience from working with older children is that the validity of these handicapping conditions for explanations of inappropriate behavior or a lack of functioning skills become less and less meaningful as time goes by. No matter what the diagnosis is in early or middle childhood, these children have to grow up and learn to perform like adults.

It’s my experience that parents put a lot of effort into seeking the right diagnosis, looking to the diagnosis to change the behavior. I’ve had parents tell me triumphantly that their child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or ADHD, as if that changes anything. It doesn’t. The bitter truth in this situation is that that child still needs to learn to perform. What happens in these cases is that parents identify their children as the victim, a victim of a learning disability, a victim of a mental health problem, which they use to make excuses for the child’s inappapropriate behavior and poor performance. The problem with “victim” thinking is that it lessens the expectation that the child will learn to take care of himself in the adult world. Know this: Adults with ADHD or bipolar disorder still have to get up every morning and go to work, get along with their colleagues, respect their supervisors, and perform and be productive. Kids with dyslexia, Asperger's syndrome, or other neurological impairments have to lead productive lives if they want to make it in society. There’s just no getting around that.

If you see your child as a victim, he will eventually see himself that way, too. This is perhaps the most treacherous part of blaming and excuse making, because it develops one of the worst possible perceptions in kids:  “Since I’m a victim, the rules don’t apply to me.” Herein lies the real danger. There are rules that accompany learning. There are rules that accompany individual change. Children who don’t follow those rules often don’t learn and don’t change. And you’ll hear much too much focus on the child as "victim" and not the child as participant in his own education and maturation.

Related: The top "thinking errors" kids make--and how they keep them from growing into responsible adults.

Let me be clear: excuse-making is not a sign of bad parenting. It’s simply ineffective. It’s very difficult for parents to be firm when their kids are having a harder time than other kids. But firmness is what it takes. My son has dyslexia. In school, that was a real impediment to his learning. Nonetheless, he had to do the work. We got him the help he needed when we could, but he still needed to learn to write and read and perform in the adult world. His dyslexia was a problem that he had to learn to solve and our job was to help him to learn to do that. Parents cannot solve their child’s behavioral and learning problems for them. They have to empower the child to do that themselves, and that starts with this thought: Stop seeing your child as a victim and blaming external situations for his individual predicament.

If You’ve Been Playing the Blame Game, Here’s How to Stop 
If you’ve been making excuses for your child’s behavior, you need to be straightforward in addressing the problem. The “Alternative Response” method in The Total Transformation Program is a helpful guideline to this kind of conversation. Sit down with your child and point out that whatever it is you’re doing now isn’t working any more. Gauge your remarks based upon the age and developmental level of your child. The younger the child, the more simplistic the conversation has to be. In any case, the conversation should be brief and to the point. I can’t stress enough the importance of not making a lot of justifications or giving in to emotionalism. Don’t say, “I’m sorry we let you down.” A simple, “This isn’t helping you,” is fine. Explanations longer than that invite arguments which we like to avoid when we can.

This is your chance to make a fresh start. You can say, “Our relationship with the school hasn’t really been working, and how we’ve been handling things hasn’t been working.  We don’t think it’s giving you what you really need. So from now on, when you don’t do your homework, this is how we’re going to handle it. If you’re abusive with our neighbors or friends or schoolmates, this is how we’ll handle it.” Spell out what will happen if they don’t follow the rules: “From now on, if you don’t do your homework, you won’t be allowed to watch TV until it’s done. If we see you abusing people, you won’t be allowed to play your video games for the rest of the day.” The best method is to have a short conversation, and then say, “I have something else I have to do now,” and go do it. Don’t make it a long, drawn-out affair.

Later on, follow through on the consequences you’ve laid out. You should expect a response that includes a wide range of acting out behavior, from verbal abuse to threats of non-performance, to sullen silence. Nonetheless, if you stick with this, in the long run, you’re doing your child a big favor. Accountability for basic responsibility creates change. Excuses stifle change.

Related: Getting through to your acting out child or teen.

It's not about "Fault"--It's about Responsibility

When kids focus on excuses, parents need to focus on responsibility. Of course, some excuses are valid, and the responsibility for knowing how to sort that out rests with the parent. But many, many excuses are just simply that: thoughts children use to excuse themselves from not meeting their responsibilities. When those are raised in a conversation where a child wants to shift the focus away from the responsibility and onto the excuse, parents have to shift it back from excuse and onto the matter at hand: the child’s responsibility.

So if you say, "Why didn’t you do your homework," the parent is really asking, "Why didn’t you meet your responsibility?” When your child says, “I forgot to bring my book home again,” he’s really saying, “It’s not my fault that I didn’t meet my responsibility.” You need to respond by saying, “We’re not talking about whose fault it is, we’re talking about whose responsibility it is.” In that way, you can shift the focus back onto the child’s responsibilities and you won’t get stuck in an argument about the nature of the excuse. If the child makes excuses about misbehavior, respond, “We’re not talking about why you misbehaved, we’re talking about why you didn’t meet your responsibility.”

If you argue or debate about the excuse, you’re simply encouraging your child to come up with bigger and better ones.

My advice to parents: Don’t argue, just focus on the responsibility.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Powerful advice.

Comment By : Chicago Dad

Reading your article I discovered the damage that I was causing to my child and learned about him making excuses. Great Article. We the parents need more ways of helping our child with his behavior in class.

Comment By : WandaChenell


Comment By : TKATZ2004

Excellent article! Well articulated, easy solution. I've used James' advice when dealing with my teens, and by-and-large, it works FLAWLESSLY! The advice about not getting drawn into an argument is wonderful, it completely disarms a teen who is trying to change the focus of a discussion. Love it!

Comment By : Valerie

This article is a gift from God! It is helping me tremendously to guide my eleven-year-old into accepting responsibility and consequences for the wrong choices instead of hiding behind the mask of "victim". I typed up a contract stating the consequences for wrong choices he makes quite often, so he will know what to expect when he doesn't meet his responsibilities. This eliminated arguments regarding "punishment". He liked the idea and shocked me by saying, "Now let's turn the paper over and write down some things I need to see you change." They were valid points, and we negotiated the issues. and wrote down the changes I need to make in our relationship and how I talk to him. It works! I am very grateful for all the valuable advice I absorb from your articles. Keep it up!

Comment By : GG

Thank you for this article. However, what do you do with a young adult who just walks away when you approach the subject of acting responsibly with regards to their wayward life of not respecting parents, adult supervisors on the job, living too carefree of a lifestyle?

Comment By : Bev

Wow, our entire culture is about blaming someone, and parents have easily fallen into that trap. Great advise

Comment By : Becky


Comment By : lisa f.

Wow! Your article was an eye-opener. For the past week we have been dealing with a behavior issue with my 7 year old. Although my husband and I follow most of what is recommended in your article, we need to let my son know the consequences in simpler terms. Thank You for your advice.

Comment By : Jennroge

I am the Grandmother and at some disadvantage. My Daughter has MS in a wheelchair with daily nursing care and Father works long late hours. My Grandson has basically raised himself. I have begun to use your methods with my Grandson and find him responding. Still needs a lot of guidance on Responsibility vs excuses, but when we are together, I feel he is beginning to understand that his behavior is unacceptable in my presence. Especially when it is the two of us. Thank you for helping me change my behavior to help him.

Comment By : Patty

I can totally relate to this article and it showed me some good ideas that i will use,,I was surprised at all the free info from this and I am very pleased to get it,,,THANK YOU SO MUCH,,,,

Comment By : Debbie

Dear Bev: Empowering Parents recently featured a series of articles by James Lehman called "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children." These articles deal with the subject you mentioned: older kids who don't act responsibly. Please check our archives for the following: "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children"; "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children: Is it Ever too Late to set up a Living Agreement?"; and "In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home". Hope this is of help to you!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

Bullseye! this article gets straight to the point. helps put every thing i wanted to do in perfect perspective. now i am wondering should i email this to my children or just use it for myself. i have 10,16 and 18 year old boys. the eldest and youngest give me more problematic situations. the middle one understands responsibility but is a prankster. which i guess that's where he feels safe to be irresponsible at that moment.this article is right on time. flawless!

Comment By : Thumbs up!


Comment By : sk


Comment By : DINA38

wow!! this is the best article ever!! that on the blame hit home. i to this day sit and think "what did i do wrong?" i dont give him the excuses but have spent too much time looking back for MY mistake.

Comment By : ab

Great advice! I was thrilled to read such an intense article and then I got down to the part of when kids don't do their homework or bring it home or be abusive to other people and parents say "this is how we are going to handle it". HOW? I was hoping to read some suggestions on that since my methods are effective enough. Any suggestions on how to handle these problems?

Comment By : Robyn

Dear Robyn: Check out this article by James called "Homework Survival for Parents." And, we are planning on featuring an article in an upcoming issue of Empowering Parents on Abusive/Violent Teens and Pre-teens, so please keep checking our website.

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

Thank you for offering insight into an interesting subject. I have five children, 15 years from the oldest to youngest, and can attest that each personality and the ways to reach them is so different from one to the next. One common thread, though, is that they all have the same parents, with our approach tweaking due to maturity after 19 years of parenting. My concern is mostly for my oldest brother John, who has always been considered "slow" to learn and though he is over 40, his behavior is probably closer to pre-teen age. My mom died 6 years ago, and turns out that her strongwilled determination to just "handle it all" for him was handled far too much by herself, never really including my dad and not even my brother. I'm seeing more and more of his behavior pattern to be "why should I? it's so-and-so's fault". It's very hard to help him grasp why responsibiility is what it is, and that there's no one for him to fall back on to clean up his mistakes...except for himself. I'm sure this article will continue to inspire me and my younger brother in trying to help John "grow up" and become more fully responsible for himself. It's so unfortunate that due to him being of legal age and never having been formerly under any kind of medical care for his condition/behavior, he has been his own worst enemy, making poor and long lasting decisions that affect him now but that he just doesn't grasp. We are very afraid for his safety from predators, because of his trusting soul and nievety. Could you suggest where we could seek further help?

Comment By : AdultBrotherNeedsHelp

No more excuses Lets find solutions!!! I love it Dr. Lehman! Jacqui from Me.

Comment By : lillysky

Dear "AdultBrotherNeedsHelp"--Empowering Parents has a series of articles on the topic of adult children that you might find interesting. They are also written by James Lehman, and I think they might be helpful to you and your family. Please check them out when you have a chance: They are, "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children," "In Response to Parents of Older Children" and "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children: Is it Ever too Late to set up a Living Agreement?"

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I'm in full agreement with James Lehman about blame. 'And' Now can anyone give me advise about what to do when you have asked for help with your child (We live in the UK so we asked for help from Social Services)because he has serious behavoir difficulties and the 'Blame' is handed back to you.This of course gives the message that the problem is not of his making and so gives him permission to continue and then some.

Comment By : Shelagh

I have looked so many "so called professionals" in the eye and said " I know its my fault. I know also that i am the only one who can fix it." All I have heard from all these "professionals" is poo-pooing. "How does he feel?" "Dont blame yourself." I didnt know the answer until 1 minute ago, when I read the article. But I do now. I do hereby accept resonsibility for my actions. And with you as part of my support system. Telling me where I am wrong, so that I can change it. I can be a good parent and teach my children how to cope. And for that may I say. God Bless You!

Comment By : toughenuff

Great info I can use with some of my Boy Scouts as well as my own boys. We have a great group of kids and they each have their own unique issues.

Comment By : Assistant Scoutmaster

Thank you for this article. This information is very helpful and says it like it is, something I need to be reminded of fairly consistently! I keep focusing on the process of "getting to the root" of my daughters lack of self control in social settings (she is 7 years old). I needed to be reminded that in the end the "why" cannot be the controlling factor. However, I have really struggled with the embarrassment and alienation that my child's behavior creates between myself and the parents of her peers who are also my friends. This means everything from the well-intentioned comments from friends who want to tell you what you are doing wrong (and how much better they are at it), to the alienation I feel as a Mom knowing the other parents hear about my child's misbehavior. It is difficult to be in social settings with other parents and adults who know my daughter. In the end, I am to the point where I try to avoid these situations altogether because I am so worn out from being embarrassed by her lack of self-control and never knowing if she will act up in front of them...again. Are there any articles or resources that address this?

Comment By : momof2girls

* Dear ‘momof2girls’: I’m glad you asked this question. There are many other parents who share your feelings. James Lehman did write an article to help you with some ideas on how to handle things if you find yourself feeling embarrassed by your child's behavior. It is challenging work at times to help our kids learn and then to experience them practicing the skills they need to manage their behaviors. Some kids need more practice and coaching then others. In this article James will give you a plan to help during those times that could cause you to feel embarrassed: Are You Embarrassed by Your Child's Behavior? 5 Ways to Cope. The article is located at this web site address: Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thanks momof2girls - I totally relate to your story! I too feel that way and keep trying to solve the question of why and I also have been avoiding situations where you feel like it will not go well. It is not easy as a parent of a "socially challenged" kid - others do not see how much effort you can put into practicing problem areas with them beforehand and even consequences after. This article reminds me to get back to the basics of holding him responsible for his behavior and not allow him to make excuses or blame others!

Comment By : momintraining

What a nice article. It is a pleasure to read it. Thanks for sharing. Regards, Sessel

Comment By : Sessel

Last my step daughter and her mother had a huge argument that led to my step daughter's decision to move in with her father (my husband) and asked him to seek full custody of her in which he did. Because prior to this incident her mother had managed to turn her completely against her father and she had refused to see him for months my husband put himself at her becon call. Other than his work schedule every part of his life was planned by his daughter. She came and went whenever she wanted, missed enormous amounts of school (she didn't feel well -- stayed up all night and then didn't feel well in the morninings). When my husband was married to his daughter's mother, the mother did all the parenting and set all the rules. My husband stayed pretty much out of the parenting except at times when he had to step in the middle of his wife and daughter to keep them from coming to blows. Out of fear of losing her back to her mom completely (he did encourage visits between them -- but the mom stopped having anything to do with daughter after she chose to live with dad) he didn't really enforce any rules in the house as long as the daughter stayed on the A B honor role. It was the easiest way to handle his daughter. Being a social worker who worked 3 years with troubled teens and 10 years with children and families, I was shocked at how this wonderful man would allow his daughter to dictate and disrespectfully speak to him. We have been married for 3 months so I must walk softly. However, I have gently begun to advise my husband in some behavioral mangement techniques to implement as well as some approaches he should try to create some positive changes before his daughter starts to drive (he promised her a car at age 16) she just turned 15. Needless to say we have had some major meltdowns and she is attempting to assume the victim role. I really don't want to paint a picture of a horrific child...just one that has learn the art of manipulation at a level of perfection. She is beautiful, gifted, talented, intelligent and has the potential to be a very productive adult some day. This article has been encouraging to me in that it reiterates what I have been encouraging my husband to see before we lose this beautiful and gifted child.

Comment By : Susan

I am in the midst of my 13 year old daughter's teenage issues. Like you say: sometimes you feel quite worn out. She is attention deficit and tends to do the blame and excuses thing which I know will not be to her future benefit. One day I was really thinking very hard what to do about this and a slogan crossed my mind: NO EXCUSIONS, JUST SOLUTIONS! She found it funny and laughed about it and now I have a stopper when she starts blaming :-)

Comment By : South African Mom

I longer accept his bs excuses. The only answer he can give when he does not complete or start to take care of his responsibility is - No excuse,sir.

Comment By : Saving my energy

I am so amazed by this article. I have been trying to find a solution to my step son's behavioral problems this article is amazing. I am still going to bring him in to the doctor next week for our appointment, I hope if they give him the adhd medication it will atleast give him the 10 second window to start to think before he speaks. I want the sweet kid back.

Comment By : DePere Concern

We have several kids adopted from the foster system. Our newest boys (14 & 12) try hard to play the victim. Thanks for this article. It will be a great help even coming from their past situation. (supposedly they have ADHD and other issues...I've not seen those just boys trying to learn their boundaries and test that we say what we mean and mean what we say).

Comment By : Vickie

We also adopted kids from the foster care system. Five adopted and also a bio kid. Ages from 12 to 16. The adopted kids and the bio kid are a lot alike in behaviour. ADHD, cronic victim mentality, always with a ready excuse. When one of them gets away with something the other five all make a mental note of it and point the discrepancy out later. "Equal isn't fair," I always tell them. But they want everything to be measured equal and they all feel that they did more, worked harder, and got less than allll the other kids. When one kid goes above and beyond and earns a reward, the ones that didn't earn it all balk and get angry because they didn't receive that same privilege. A privilege they didn't earn. So they get passive aggressive and stonewall a chore or throw away a HW assignment, or fail a test. Physical death over giving in. How to help them realize that equal isn't fair and that living in a family is a small taste of what living in the big outside world is all about.

Comment By : MomOfSensationalSix

* To “MomOfSensationalSix”: Siblings often focus on the “fairness” of how they are treated in comparison to their brothers and sisters. This can be quite frustrating for parents, because, in all honesty, it’s difficult to make sure everything is “fair” when rewarding or consequencing your children. From what you have written, it sounds like you hold them to the same rules and expectations which is important. In reality, their complaining isn’t really about how you’re treating them. It’s more about them taking the victim stance and blaming someone else for their choices and feelings. James Lehman calls this “the blame game.” The rationale is that if I can blame someone else then it’s not my fault and I don’t have to take responsibility for my choices. It also works to put the other person (you) on the defensive so that instead focusing on their inappropriate choices and behaviors, you’re stuck trying to defend your decisions. It may not possible to make them realize things aren’t always going to be “fair.” Instead, focus on holding them accountable for their behavior and choices, regardless of whether or not they think it’s fair. In her article "It's Not Fair!" How to Stop Victim Mentality and Thinking in Kids, Janet Lehman discusses the victim mentality a lot of kids have and gives some great advice on how to address it. It’s also going to be helpful to problem solve with them ways they can make better choices. As James Lehman points in his article Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior, problem solving is a key part in helping your children develop better ways of behaving. We hope this is useful for your situation. We thank you for writing in and sharing your story. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thanks for you timely assistance and advice, I will concentrate on the responsibility. All the best to you and your family.

Comment By : Parenting alone

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