The first Friday-the-13th of every year is “Blame Someone Else Day.” This year, that day is this week. I love these made-up holidays because they give me an opportunity to think about things that I usually overlook. This humorous day is a good reminder to look at our all-too-human tendency to blame other people when things don’t go well.
Blaming other people is a particularly strong tendency among children with trauma. I suspect their natural tendency is reinforced by the fact that the start of their problems was something that someone else did. Children don’t have much control over their lives, and when they start out with trauma caused by other people’s decisions, it’s very easy for them to keep thinking of themselves as victims. It’s very frustrating for us as parents because we know that continually blaming other people is not a formula for success or good mental health.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that once a child starts having problems, adults tend to peg them as troublemakers. They view any subsequent problems as due to the child’s bad attitude. I ran into this stereotyping several times when I was foster parent. On one occasion, when I was a prosecutor, my foster daughter called in a panic, saying that a group of girls at the school had threatened to beat her up. One of the girls was the sister of a defendant that I was prosecuting, and had decided to take revenge on my foster daughter.
When I went to the school, the authorities were blaming my foster daughter, saying that she had started the argument by bragging about the fact that the other girl’s brother was going to prison. I could believe that my foster daughter had been a bit mouthy, but I explained that she could not have known about the pending indictment. First, I never talked about my work at home, and second, the other girl had a different last name than the defendant. Only someone who had seen the actual indictment (i.e., the other girl) could have made the connection. The school principal was unmoved. My foster daughter had a history of problems at school, the other girl didn’t, and that past experience settled the issue as far as the school administration was concerned. The school personnel only changed their attitude when the U.S. Marshals, at my request, went down to investigate the case as one of threats against a federal prosecutor’s family.
The lesson for me was to learn to give my kids the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t really blame the school administrators for relying on their experience. If I had not had different information, I very easily could have jumped to the same conclusion. When our kids have a history of mouthing off, lying, or causing trouble, it’s very easy to believe that on any given day they are just continuing the same pattern. But our kids need to know that we have their back, and part of taking care of them requires us to listen to their story. Even if we disagree in the end, we need to give them a fair hearing and listen to all the facts.
Another important principle is that we have to model the behavior that we want, i.e., taking responsibility for our own mistakes. According to one study, blaming other people is socially contagious. Even more important, we know that our kids learn from us. If we aren’t willing to admit mistakes or, hardest of all, apologize when we are wrong, then we can’t expect our kids to know how to do either.
Blaming other people for the things that go wrong in our lives is a strong defense mechanism. It’s hard to look clearly at ourselves and even harder to make the changes that we need. If we are foster parents, and sometimes if we are stepparents, our kids come to us with a pretty strong case that most of their trauma actually is someone else’s fault. But we can’t let them stay mired in that sense of victimhood. We have to help them learn to control the things that they can, and to move past the trauma. Learning to accept responsibility for their own mistakes is an essential part of that process. We have to help them figure out what is their responsibility and what isn’t, and we have to show them in our own life the behavior that we want. Otherwise, our and their lives will just be a continual Friday-the-13th day of never moving beyond the bad things that happen to us.