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"I'm a Victim, So the Rules Don't Apply to Me!" How to Stop "Victim Thinking" in Kids

by James Lehman, MSW
I'm a Victim, So the Rules Don't Apply to Me! How to Stop Victim Thinking in Kids

Whenever an adolescent doesn’t want to take responsibility, it’s very likely they’ll present themselves as a victim. When your child says, “You don’t understand me,” that’s playing the victim, because what they’re really saying is, “I’m a victim of your misunderstanding." When they say, “My teacher is mean. That’s why I didn’t do my homework,” that is victim thinking, because they’re blaming their teacher for not having completed their work. And when you hear, “I hit my sister because she stuck her tongue out at me," that is also victim thinking, because your child is using something as an excuse for breaking a rule in your household. And you’ll see excuse-making, blaming and justification all contained within this kind of thought process. In our society today, kids as well as adults have become adept at using all of these strategies to rationalize their actions.

Here is where the danger lies: at the core of victim thinking is the belief that if you’re a victim of something, then the rules don’t apply to you.

Here is where the danger lies: at the core of victim thinking is the belief that if you’re a victim of something, then the rules don’t apply to you. To put this another way, if you’re a victim, you’re not responsible for the results of your actions. Consequently, if you're not responsible, then you don't have to change anything: it's somebody else's fault. In our culture, if you’re a victim of a bad childhood, an accepted belief is that you’re not totally responsible for your wrongdoings. In my opinion that’s a lot of nonsense. That kind of thinking has led to the type of society that we see around us today, in which no one takes responsibility for anything and everyone is a victim of some perceived injustice. So where does this thinking come from? Well, look around you. Look at our leaders, look at our politicians. It’s never their fault; they’re always victims of something or someone. The sad truth is that victim thinking permeates our society at every level.

Teens and Victim Thinking: “You Just Don’t Understand Me!”
One reason why it’s so common for teens to fall into the trap of victim thinking is because it’s part of the way they try to individuate from their parents. So, instead of seeing themselves as protected by their parents, they start to see themselves as the victim of their parents. They feel victimized by household rules, limits and expectations from their parents.

If you think of it from your child’s perspective, adolescence is probably the most conflicted age that a person can go through. Teens and pre-teens are filled with intense emotions. They are undergoing hormonal, physical and sexual changes. When they get to junior high and high school, they are handling more responsibility than they ever had in grade school. Don’t forget that the 16-year-old who has access to money and cars and drugs was a 12-year-old four years ago. As parents, it’s important to remember how quickly this happens. This does not mean that children shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions, though—far from it. In fact, I think parents need to be more aware of the natural propensity of teens to use victim thinking, and that you should challenge it as often as possible.

It’s not unusual for kids to feel very comfortable in their identity as a victim. When you challenge that stance, your child might see you as being a little weird and out-of-touch. He might say, “You just don’t understand me,” when you don’t buy into the victim thing. And by the way, most parents do buy into it. Many develop a parenting style where they believe their kids are victims, and then they try to fix things for them. But in my experience, this creates a very difficult situation for the family.

When your child says, “You don’t understand me," he’s inviting you to a fight. Don’t fight that fight. All you have to say is, “Well, maybe I don’t understand you. But I do understand this: you have to do your homework and there will be no electronics until you get it done."
Another thing you can say is, “Maybe I don’t understand you, but it’s important that you understand what I expect you to do." Don’t argue with your child or get sidetracked into fights about who understands whom, or who loves whom. Be firm and don’t let yourself get pulled into that.

Why Seeing Yourself as a Victim is a “Thinking Error”
Victim thinking is actually part of a broader range of what we call “thinking errors". There are errors in thinking just like there are errors in math and spelling. Someone may spell a word or solve a math problem a certain way and get the wrong answer. But while they’re doing it, they believe it’s right.

In the same way, people use thinking errors and get the wrong answer to life. The sad part is, while they’re doing it they think it’s the right answer. Some of the thinking errors adolescents use are dishonesty, justification, making excuses, blaming others, and playing the victim. And so you’ll see adolescents using victim thinking within this whole constellation of thinking errors. And they use it to avoid taking responsibility for things they’ve done or things they don’t want to do. For the most part, adolescents believe what they’re thinking; it’s not a manipulation. When your child plays the victim, makes excuses or justifies himself, he believes what he's thinking and saying is true. That does not mean that you shouldn’t hold him responsible for his actions—and I mean hold him responsible sternly and clearly. I believe allowing your child to use thinking errors in order to avoid taking responsiblity is a very dangerous thing, because it will not prepare him for adult life and decision-making.

Establish a Culture of Accountability
I believe parents should develop what I call a “culture of accountability” in their home. This means that whatever is going on in the outside world, in your home there is a culture of accountability—and not a culture of thinking errors. So blaming, excuses, justifying, and being the victim should have no place in the realm of doing your chores, treating other people appropriately, doing your homework and taking care of your responsibilities. It means that your child is accountable in your home for all of those things.

Part of establishing a culture of accountability is being very clear as a parent about what your values are with your kids. Then, you have to live those values. So if you value taking responsibility, not only do you have to be clear about that, you have to take your responsibilities seriously, and then you have to demand it from your children. As I’ve said before, if you value honesty, don’t lie. If you value trust, be up front about the things you do. And tell your kids, “These are the things we value and this is the way we’re going to live in this home."

Your child is exposed to thousands of things in the outside world, but when he comes home, he’s accountable to your values. You hold him accountable by setting limits, rewarding responsibility-taking, and giving consequences for making excuses. You also teach him accountability through discussions about behavior and conversations about how to do things differently "next time it happens." Remember, in your home, your child is accountable to you.

Kids are Only Victims When You Allow Them To Be Victims
Here’s the truth: kids are only victims when you allow them to be victims. In order for your child to be a victim, you have to accept their excuses or their blame. I suggest you challenge your child’s thinking by saying things like:

  • “It sounds like you’re justifying cursing at your sister because she was looking at you the wrong way.”
  • “Making excuses is not going to solve the problem of you having to mow the lawn…and I expect you to do it.”
  • “Blaming your teacher is not going to solve your problem of getting your homework done.”

This is a very powerful tool for parents. In this last example, instead of arguing or defending the teacher, like many parents would tend to do, just go right to, “It sounds like you’re blaming your teacher." This way, you identify the thinking error. “Blaming the teacher is not going to solve your problem. Your problem is getting your work done.”

Here’s an example of a conversation you might have with your child when you find out they haven't done their homework:

You: “Your teacher emailed me and said you haven't handed in your homework all week."
Your child: “You know, my teacher's a jerk. He never explains what we're supposed to do and then he expects me to hand in his assignments.”
You: “It sounds like you're blaming your teacher for not meeting the responsibility of handing in your homework.”
Your child: “It's not my fault! I told you, he's a jerk.”
You: “We're not talking about whose fault it is. We're talking about whose responsibility it is to do your homework and hand it in, or ask me or the teacher for help. You can't just not do it, and then blame your teacher.”

Challenge the thinking error right at its source. That’s part of what I teach parents to do in The Total Transformation Program.

When Victim Thinking Becomes a Way of Life
It’s important to confront victim thinking in our children if we don’t want thinking errors to become a way of life. A few years ago, there was a very in-depth study done on criminals in the California prison system. One of the important things it showed was that people who return to prison repeatedly see themselves as victims: victims of poor childhoods, of society, of poor parenting, of poverty. And what happens is, as long as they see themselves as victims, they don’t feel as if they have to take responsibility to change their antisocial behavior.

When you’re a victim you can always find a way to be a victim. If you’re the parent of teenagers, you know that many of them find a way to think of themselves as victims much of the time. Remember, although your child is going to develop thinking errors automatically, it’s up to us as parents to challenge that victim thinking and hold our children accountable.


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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."

READER'S COMMENTS

5.0 Very good article. My 17 year old boy thanks this way about every thing.

Comment By : Mike

I think this article is fantastic. I find your advise to be thoughtful. You always get behind the behavior to identify the issue we need to deal with as parents. The words you suggest are very helpful. Thank you.

Comment By : Liz

5 for sure. This is a great article. I plan to use these tips in our home with our kids.

Comment By : Yvonne

i'm a grandmother raising an angry 11 yr. old i can't tell you how helpful it is to read your articles thank you soo much

Comment By : nana

This is my child verbatim! She is 17 and wears me down with this way of thinking. Many times I hear it and cast the comments aside because her ways of thinking "wear me out"!!!! I can't wait to try some of these scenarios to see if she wakes up to what she is doing and make sure that I wake up to recognizing it for what it is!

Comment By : Bonnie

Thanks for this! My oldest has AS and sometimes claims it as a reason for not doing things, my daughter has friends whose parents have no boundaries, and my 10 year old has a PD - he is forever the victim. Now I know how to challenge that thinking without arguing about it! We all have issues, and all of us could see ourselves as victims - sometimes we are...but a victim mentality is a choice. Great article.

Comment By : momofblendedfour

Wow, this article is very timely for me. Although my son is not quite yet a teenager, I am starting to see some of these same behaviors and excuses. Hopefully, this new "startegy" will help. I never thought about excuse making as being "victim thinking." Thank you.

Comment By : busytxmom

My 9-1/2 year old son is really good at this. He has a teacher's assistant that he absolutely cannot stand, and they do not get along at all. He sometimes does not cooperate with her because she has made him angry and then he is disrespectful to her. It is so hard to try to get him to understand that no matter what is going on, he still has to do his work and he still has to be respectful. He has 5 weeks of school left and we are hanging on by a thread! His grades are good...in fact, this is the best schoolyear he has had so far, but it is getting VERY frustrating for him. I certainly want to use some of the suggestions here to try to get him out of his "victim" mode. Thanks for ALL of your helpful articles.

Comment By : sams_mom

My son got up late this morning and blamed the clock or "someone" who touched it..then proceeded to get angry with his dad because, as his driver, he was going to make him get a detention (he was getting ready for work and would have to leave earlier than normal to drive him and quite possibly arrive late to work because he did). None of this mattered as he came to me to complain about this calling his dad a jerk and an a******. He never mentioned what I knew - that he had stayed up and was watching TV til nearly 1 AM since I'd gotten up and had to turn the TV & lights off. Needless to say he has more than a detention to deal with now. Thanks for the article, another solid reminder of how to speak clearly to this and of course, the abusive language.

Comment By : Eileen

Excellent advice - thank you so much - I have a 6 yr. old (adopted child w/challenges) that is very into "victim thinking".

Comment By : kathy

I am a grandmother raising 3 grandchildren ages 8, 10, and 14..These articles are wonderful...I have to remember that people do not change overnight and that some changes take time...but the blessings that come with being consistent with them has been great.

Comment By : menana2

I am a foster parent and I have 3 sisters who, never did anything wrong I love the idea of in this house we are accoutable. It is a slow process, there ages are 14, 12 and 7. We will make a difference Never give up on any kid.

Comment By : nevergivup

5 Stars And, then, what next? I love your articles and tapes and have tried to apply. Identify "faulty thinking" and hold responsible. My little victim then blames me for the consequences because I implement them. Still not seeing (or acknowledging) the cause and effect. We've been at this for months and I don't really see a change in his thinking/actions. He's only 7...can I expect a change in the faulty thinking in childhood or do we just keep plugging away and hope it "sinks in" by adulthood?

Comment By : Persistance will pay off?

WOW! Amazing timing and wonderful insight!! THANKS. The one addition that I thought to share was that as we work at creating this culture of accountability and "honor" as I like to refer to it...we the parents have to be willing to hold the mirror up to our thinking errors. We may see the behavior in our children, but they have learned it from many areas of our society....the closest of which is HOME....US....the adults in their world!! I have learned as we have been committed to these changes in our home, I can't expect my children to do anything I am not willing to do first...and repeatedly. It has to become a new way of life, not one that you keep up until they finally believe it....but a life change we model daily, in spite of the child's choice. Thanks for the reminder!!

Comment By : heartofamom

Thank you. It sounds like you are writing about my 15 year old. Every teacher she has ever had is "stupid", it's amazing just how many "stupid" teachers are being hired these days! My daughter has no concept of cause/effect when it comes to HER, that is. This is a very difficult road. I appreciate these newsletters and see them as "pep talks".

Comment By : SJB

surpurb, I am a grandparent raising my great grandchild very gifted, and smart. She makes all A'S AND B'S WITH little effort on her part. She HAS ADDHD: wITH MEDICINE SHE WORKS WELL: WITHOUT IT SHE IS ALL OVER THE PLACE AND DOES NOT FOCUS.SHE HAS A LOT OF AGGRESSION (MAYBE DESERVED) TERRIBLE ABUSED CHILD FOR 8 YEARS, MENTALLY NOT PHYSICALLY.tHIS ARTICLE HAS GIVEN ME INSIGHT ON HOW TO HANDLE THE SITUATION:

Comment By : Marisa

I am a new member and the single parent of my 17 year old son. I just received my DVDs and have not yet listened to them. However, I did read this newsletter, and the article "Victim Thinking...", which is absolutely fantastic! It describes my son perfectly! I really did need this information (but didn't know it until I read it!) and I am very thankful to have this knowledge tonight. I will use it right away, which will be first thing in the morning. This is something I always needed to know, but again, I wasn't aware of that fact until I read your article. Thanks for the help this will be and for the help I know is forthcoming as soon as I listen to the DVDs.

Comment By : Kathy Mathis

This would have to be one of the biggest challenges parents of teens face, trying to work out at a moment's notice whose problem is whose. The idea of making someone else responsible for your problems is really attractive and I can't blame the teens for trying. However, it's a nightmare to manage and I appreciate the tips and hints. Leading by example is at the heart of the matter, be honest about your mistakes, say sorry when you need to, praise even the smallest move towards taking responsibility without being prompted.

Comment By : Teresa in NZ

This article was sent to me by my adult daughter who has a son, age 17 1/2, with the victim "complex". He only uses it of course to his advantage. His mother is well aware and hold her ground. I am very proud of my daughter and son-in-law for their parenting skills. I just wish I had this knowledge when my children were growing up. I have a 40 year old who lives at home (victim) and is out of work (victim). I converse with my daughter and she gives me great tips, but I am tired of trying. He has not changed one bit. Every job he gets he loses within the year he starts. I could go on and on. I am again attempting to get him out of the victim mode and the manipulating mode. I will set my values to him one more time. There will be consequences if he does not follow them this time around. I am a determined mother who is worried about her 40 year old son.

Comment By : Will not give up

We are parents to our last "child in the nest," an 11-year old boy. This article is extremely helpful to us because our handsome, bright, capable son is always blaming someone else for things he feels a victim of, and his most favorite target is his Fifth Grade teacher. When it comes time to address comments by his teacher in his daily homework assignment book, he often blames her by saying things like, "She's mean. She doesn't fully explain what needs to be done. I hate her!" I used to challenge this type of thinking with comments like, "Well, you know son, she was Teacher of the Year 2 years ago. How can one receive this type award if they do what you say she does?" Well, this has not resolved the issue of why his homework is not complete or turned-in on time, if at all. If anything, it tended to escalate the situation. Now, we use the techniques mentioned in this article. Result: He has figured out that HE IS THE PROBLEM, NOT THE TEACHER! And, he is now applying that bright mind to his work and receiving the grades he is/has always been capable of obtaining. Thanks James for your insights. They work! Dr. Don and Diane

Comment By : Dr. Don and Diane

I like this article , but what do you do when you have the other parent (divorced)trying to manipulate your children into them being the victim? And some how turning your good accountable parenting style into them being the victim, and blaming you for it? When in actuality you are the furthest thing from it!

Comment By : VT

really good stuff. great reminder to challenge the thinking rather than automatically buying into the guilt.

Comment By : no fear here

i enjoy reading the e-mails i get on a regular basis,thank you! i ahve a question you, do think having my 14 year old read some of these articles that seem to apply in our daily lives is a good or bad thing. i have had her read a couple and brings out a talk between us . hence a good thing ?

Comment By : mld fthrof4

I have an adult child, 37, that continues to behave like these adolescents. I believe if I had had these tips, maybe she would not be the adult victim. Everything that happens to her is blamed on someone else or something else.

Comment By : Hopeful

I've been searching the internet all day, and while this "victim" behavior and lying/embellishing attention seeking are similar it is more of a combination of what my teen is doing. i have a 14 year old step daughter, who no matter who she meets family, friends, anyone that she hangs out with for a while, she tells them all the negative things that happened in her past, and she embellishes her responsibilities to make her sound a victim. I can think of none other than trying to seek sympathy from everyone as the attention. If those tactics don't work, she starts in with ailments, scars, and past injury stories. We've discussed with her a few times why she feels she has to relive and retell the stories to her family that has heard it (and those that haven't). She also starts in the "i dont know" , "I forgot", or does lie about completeing chores. She's a very good child normally, its just this part of her behavior that concerns me. in a nutshell, she must relive her entire life every time she meets someone and she does so in such a negative way. i've had people question me, 'why are you so hard on your child?' i ask what did she tell you? "That she has special chores, or she doesnt' get to see her friends," her chores are to water the dogs, her laundry, and dishes in addition to study time and school. i'm honestly at a loss.

Comment By : TXMOMx3

* To ”TXMOMx3”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Dealing with a victim mentality in your child can feel like an uphill battle at times. James Lehman states one reason teens use victim thinking is an attempt to individuate or separate from their parents. Your stepdaughter may feel the rules and expectations in your house are unfair. By portraying herself as a “victim”, she may be able to get other people to agree with her view, even if she is lying/embellishing to accomplish that. In can be helpful not to personalize the behavior. Instead, focus on what you can control. You can’t make her change her thinking but, you can problem-solve with her and hold her accountable for the choices she makes. Try to focus on behavior over feelings. We would suggest establishing a culture of accountability within your home to help her learn better ways of interacting and being responsible. An excellent article that addresses setting up a culture of accountability is How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home . Another article that may be helpful in addressing the victim thinking is "It's Not Fair!" How to Stop Victim Mentality and Thinking in Kids . I hope this has been helpful. Good luck as you and your family work through this challenging issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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