Countless parents write to Empowering Parents and say, “I don’t know how to make my child behave. He’s out of control, and people blame me for his behavior. I feel guilty and ashamed most of the time and very alone. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
The truth is, you’re not supposed to know everything about being a parent—it’s a skill you have to learn, just like anything else. While there’s no one “right way” to parent, there are more effective ways to handle your child’s behavior.
I’ve worked with some of the toughest, out-of-control adolescents imaginable and understand where people are coming from when they say they feel like a bad parent.
As a therapist in residential treatment centers for troubled teens and at-risk youth, part of my job was working with parents to teach them new skills. The moms and dads I met were beaten down and guilt-ridden by the time their kids arrived at the residential center.
The vast majority had tried to do their best as parents, but they were up against difficult odds with their kids—including behavior disorders, mood problems, and other stressors in the home. It was difficult for them to get past the blame, shame, and guilt because their kids had such a long history of acting-out behavior.
But over time, these parents learned to stop taking their children’s behavior personally and to parent more effectively by using techniques that stressed responsibility and accountability.
If you have an acting-out child, it’s common to feel deeply ashamed of their behavior. It’s as if you’ve failed as a parent.
But these feelings of shame don’t help anyone: they won’t help you, and they won’t help your child. Who is to blame just doesn’t matter. What matters is parents who are working to become more effective. What matters is what you can do differently to help your child change their behavior. After all, it’s not about whose fault it is—it’s about who is willing to take responsibility.
I understand that feeling judged and blamed by others is uncomfortable and upsetting. But keep reminding yourself that they haven’t walked in your shoes. They’re not your judge. And you know that you’re trying to do your best. Indeed, no parent wakes up in the morning saying, “I think I’ll try to mess my kid up today.”
So give yourself a break from blame and guilt and the judgment of others and instead focus on what you can do to change the situation.
When your child acts out or misbehaves, it can become a habit to say things to yourself like this:
While it’s common to fall into the trap of feeling guilty, your guilt won’t get you—or your child—anywhere. Understand that when you blame yourself, you’re taking responsibility for your child’s behavior instead of holding them accountable for their behavior.
This is important to understand: your child is responsible for their behavior, not you. Unfortunately, your guilt sends the message to your child that you are willing to take responsibility for their behavior. Don’t do it! It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your child.
Why do we get into these patterns with our kids? To put it simply, it’s painful to see our children struggle.
Remember, the goal is appropriate behavior, no matter how the child is feeling. And just as you faced difficulties growing up and learned how to take responsibility, so will your child need to learn those same lessons.
Along the way, your child will face some challenges and disappointments. But if they’re not allowed to face those difficulties, they’ll never develop into an adult who’s able to take responsibility and deal with life’s ups and downs. Instead, they’ll always look for a scapegoat.
When your child misbehaves and continually blames others for their behavior, you might start by having them write down what happened. If possible, try to find out what happened yourself and understand the situation by doing a little investigative work with the people involved. You might even write down the facts yourself. What you want is to get your child to a place where he can be as objective as possible about what happened. Then ask your child:
“What was your responsibility, and what were other people’s responsibilities in this situation?”
This question is powerful to help them learn about their role in what happened and how to change. Be as objective as possible, and don’t bring yourself—or your feelings of guilt—into the discussion. Think of what you’re doing as all business. List the facts and think about them almost as a neutral party. The focus should be on your child learning how to manage themselves through meeting their responsibilities and not on your child learning to manage you through power plays.
If you’re enabling your child by blaming yourself—or other people—you need to take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this a pattern?” When you start examining your parenting patterns in an honest but non-blaming way, you’ll be able to help your child take responsibility and change their behavior.
To do this, you have to be strong and not accept all the excuses your child may give you. Don’t let them try to blame you by saying things like, “You made me mad, so I kicked the wall.” Or, “You took my cell phone away, so I went out to meet my friends without telling you.”
Keep in mind that your goal is to teach your child to take responsibility instead of blaming others. They won’t like this at first, but that’s OK.
Does this sound familiar? You’re at a store, and your child starts acting out. Maybe they yell at you or call you a foul name. A customer looks at you with contempt or makes a rude comment about your child’s behavior. You immediately feel guilty and ashamed.
People will blame and shame you, but you don’t have to accept it. When you become empowered as a parent, you’ll realize that nobody walks in your shoes. Those people who judge you don’t have a clue because you’re doing your best every day.
Here’s something helpful to repeat to yourself:
“No one understands unless they’ve walked in my shoes. I’m doing my best, and other people won’t always see or appreciate that.”
Eventually, you’ll be able to silence those voices in your head that say you’re doing a bad job or that you’re a failure as a parent. Instead, you’ll be able to say honestly:
“I tried my best today, and we made it to bedtime without a fight.”
What should you do when you catch yourself in the moment feeling guilty or taking on blame for your child? First of all, congratulate yourself for being aware of what’s happening. The first real step toward change on your part is that awareness of what you’re doing. Any time you can catch yourself and count to five, you’re probably going to do something different than your first impulse.
Take a moment and ask yourself the following questions:
It’s all about gaining objectivity and taking yourself out of the picture. Take a timeout if you need to. And keep telling yourself, “This is not about me; it’s about my child.”
Often families of oppositional, defiant, or acting-out kids become very withdrawn and start to pull away from other people—they isolate themselves. And while isolation can protect parents and families from further outside judgment and blame, it does nothing to improve the internal feelings of guilt. In other words, this isolation magnifies their feelings of failure.
So don’t isolate yourself. Reach out to others because when you reach out to others, it reduces the feelings of guilt and failure. You’ll gain perspective, and you’ll realize that you’re not alone and that others have similar problems.
Know that none of us knew how to parent when we had our children. We all learn as we go. The bottom line is that feeling blamed and feeling guilty prevents us from taking action. Moreover, it keeps us stuck and feeling defeated. It becomes the distorted lens through which we see ourselves, rather than the clearer lens that focuses on behavioral change.
I recommend that you reach out to people who may also be going through some of the same struggles as you are. Keep reading articles on EmpoweringParents.com. In particular, I urge you to read the comments left by parents, many of whom are in similar situations. When you see yourself reflected in another person—someone who’s also trying their best to raise their child—you’ll have a much healthier sense of yourself.
Just remember, parents of acting-out kids aren’t the problem—they’re the solution.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.