As we think this week about helping our kids find lasting happiness, I want to discuss what I see as one of the biggest barriers our kids face. The current philosophy of encouraging our children to think of themselves as perpetual victims is extremely dangerous to our kids, especially those who are trying to overcome trauma. The process of what one of my foster kids called “counting up victim points” is pernicious. It deprives our kids of their ability to overcome their circumstances and leaves them mired in their victimhood. If we really want to help children who have suffered trauma, we have to fight against this trend.
The biggest problem that I see with this trend is that it devalues our kids. In this recounting, they are no more than the sum of all the trauma that they have suffered. Looking through this lens ignores all of our kids’ strengths and virtues and the complexity of the human condition. The victim perspective sees nothing other than their trauma. In reality, our kids’ trauma need not, and should not, define the rest of their lives. There is hope for them, and we shouldn’t let them forget it.
Another problem is that the victimhood mantra allows our kids to avoid the difficult and painful process of growing past their trauma. In contemporary culture, there is an inexhaustible supply of oppressors to blame, whether it’s the patriarchy, white supremacy, structural racism, capitalists, bureaucrats, or the establishment. By definition, these villains are too powerful for individual victims to oppose, so there is no hope, and indeed no need, for our kids to try to succeed. They can take the easy way of blaming others and avoid the hard part of growing past trauma.
Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the trauma that our kids have suffered. Many of them have been victimized. The world is not fair, and many of our kids will have to face unfairness. It is more difficult than it should be to be a minority. People with money can access better mental health care than people without. Rich people can ride out difficult times more easily than poor people. We have to acknowledge those problems.
We cannot stop with that acknowledgement, however. I have written before about the research showing how debilitating it is for our kids to make their trauma the central reference point of their lives. We have to help them find positive experiences to counteract their adverse experiences and develop the self-confidence to change their lives.
I like to use the analogy of a broken leg. We do not expect someone with a fractured femur to run or even jog.. We make sure that they have whatever medical care they need and then we provide a cast and crutches. We don’t expect them to fully use their leg until it has healed.
On the other hand, we don’t want patients to stay in casts and use crutches long-term. Keeping those supports in place would change their gait, harm their health, and eventually leave them disabled. They have to give up those supports to function.
The same principle holds true for emotional injuries. We can’t expect our children to fully function when they are still hurting from trauma. They need understanding and support while they heal. But we don’t want them to have those supports so long that they can’t function without them.
I’m afraid that a victimhood culture does exactly that to our children. They become comfortable thinking of themselves as victims, and they value the currency that the status brings. They never learn how to be anything other than a victim, and they never become emotionally healthy and successfully functioning adults.
We have to resist this trend and empower our kids to heal from their trauma. Only then can they create the happy lives that we want them to have.