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.

Parents Are Trying to Do Their Best

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.

Feelings of Shame Don’t Improve Your Child’s Behavior

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.

No One Can Judge You Unless They’ve Walked In Your Shoes

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.”

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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.

Don’t Take Responsibility for Your Child’s Behavior

When your child acts out or misbehaves, it can become a habit to say things to yourself like this:

  • “It’s my fault she lies—I spoiled her and allowed her to get away with too much when she was younger.”
  • “It’s my fault he’s rude to his grandparents—I wasn’t able to teach him good manners.”
  • “It’s my fault his grades are bad—I should have worked harder with him every night.”
  • “It’s my fault she stays out past curfew—I allowed her too much freedom after my divorce because I felt guilty about breaking up the family.”

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.

It’s OK to Let Your Child Struggle

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.

Manging Kids Who Blame Others

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.

Examine Your Parenting Patterns

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.”

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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.

When Others Blame You

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.”

When You Catch Yourself Taking Blame

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:

  • What’s the situation? What really happened?
  • What’s my first inclination based on those findings?
  • What could I do to be more effective?

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.”

“I Feel So Alone”

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.

Related Content: What to Do When You Dislike Your Child

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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™.

Comments (12)
  • Alicia Gilliss
    I guess we all feel the same way, and that we have failed our kids. My 3 year old is having these behavior issues, and I’ve full on given into that and it’s terrible. I want to change my parenting! I can’t raise a spoiled, mean boy who doesn’t haveMore coping skills. If I don’t change my parenting or plain won’t, that’s what will make me a bad parent.
  • Twyla
    I've failed as a mother. I overcompensated because of the way that I felt as a child, never good enough for my parents. I told my daughter every day that I loved her. She had trouble making friends, so I took on that role. Unfortunately, I'm no social butterfly soMore I couldn't teach her how to make friends. I thought showing love was enough but I was wrong. Someone told me they think she is spoiled, that hurt. I've reached out to her for over three years and when I finally got a reply she told me to stay away from her, even at family gatherings,or she would involve the authorities! I don't find joy in anything anymore. I'm humiliated that she told family members about our problems and I don't know how I will face them,knowing what they know. This is like a death.
    • Funzy1

      I don't know how long ago that was but that's soooo hard; you're not alone though. Some kids feel exhausted by their parents and just need a break to figure their own stuff out; space and silence. These can be the way they settle down until they're ready to reach out, if you keep trying it gets annoying because you're still not listening to their wishes.

      My thought is you lived a life before she existed so you can live one after she's grown. Hard as it sounds don't make your success in life being solely about seeing her or her attitude to you. She has to make her own decisions and discoveries without your input. Release her to God to take care of if you have a faith.

  • B
    I feel like I have failed as a parent to my 16-year-old son because I always give in to him when he wants something because of how his dad treats him. His dad calls him all kinds of names and cusses him out when he's mad and telling him heMore is good for nothing. Anytime his dad would ground him I would just brush it off because I didn't see the reason for grounding him for his attitude. And now that he's a teenager if he is told no he can't go somewhere or do something he gets mad and consistently asks and begs until he gets his way. It becomes very stressful between working and in school dealing with my son. Any suggestions?
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Welcome to Empowering Parents. It can be difficult to parent effectively when the other parent approaches things from a very different angle. You may find this article helpful:https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/differences-in-parenting-how-your-child-may-be-using-it-against-you/ > We also have several articles for dealing with angry teens: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/anger/. Thank you for reaching out. Take care.
  • Whathappened
    I struggle with everything in this article. It was helpful to read. I feel sad watching my son make bad choices and have really had a hard time over this period trying to figure out how to address them (because nothing ive tried is working) and how to deal withMore all of the negative feelings these things trigger in me. I feel very alone. I wish i had help.
  • Jason E Merrin
    I feel I failed as a divorced father in multiple ways. People even tell me I was a bad father. Not because I beat my kids or was mean. But because I didn't discipline enough. Now I'm trying to change and feel my 19 year old daughter will hate me.More I feel beaten down and depressed.
  • Natty

    I feel that I've failed as a mother. My older son was kicked out of school and now he is 18,does nothing except smoking weed.

    My younger son is 14 and is a great athlete but recently started to skip practice, hang out enthusiastic his mates all the time. I fear that he will head the same way. I look back and think I was too soft with them and maybe that's why they are like that. I feel I have no strength left to fight if my younger son chooses a wrong path. I don't know what to do anymore.

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


    I’m so sorry to hear about

    the troubles you are going through with your family.  It can be very

    challenging and scary when your child appears to be behaving in a

    self-destructive manner, and I’m glad that you have reached out to her doctor

    for assistance in addressing her eating disorder.  I also encourage you to

    work with local supports to help you develop a plan to keep her safe in light

    of her recent overdose.  Her doctor might be able to help you with this,

    or you might consider contacting a service such as http://www.familylives.org.uk/ at 0808 800 2222 for

    information about resources available in your community.  I recognize how

    difficult this must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best

    moving forward.  Take care.

  • Sittinsilent
    I'm seeing someone with a 10 yr.old boy. I've witnessed this boy lie to his dad, my boyfriend and attempt to buy video games with his dad's credit card. Because, my boyfriend was abused I see him over compensating by not having his son take responsibility for bad behavior.More I raised a daughter and a son, which gives me some idea on where bad choices will lead as he enters into adolescent years. My boyfriend doesn't take any of my advice, had asked me not to interfere and I've moved out. While we still date, I don't know how to react when I catch his son in a lie. Is it now none of my business and ignore the train wreck?
    • Darlene EP


      It is not easy to be in a

      situation where you see inappropriate behavior going on and there seems to be

      nothing being done about it. Ultimately though, it is up to his father to

      handle his behavior how he sees fit. It is best to ask your boyfriend how he

      wants you to handle a situation where you catch his son in a lie. Whether he

      wants you to let him know and then he can handle it from there, or he does not

      want to be informed at all, that is something to work out between the 2 of you

      and have a plan going forward.  Good luck as you continue to work through

      this. Thank you for your question.

  • commoveo
    Nice article. I seen some of my adult problems that were most likely brought on by my parents guilt. This article shed light that extended beyond the scope intended and will help to minimize the continuing of mistakes. Feeling less guilty. Thank you. Sincerely.......
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