“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.
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.”
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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.
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.
It’s okay for kids to feel distressed about things being unjust or unfair, but it’s 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.”
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.”