Stop Blaming Yourself: Work the Problem People!

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As if raising a challenging boy wasn’t stressful, exhausting and difficult enough, parents of challenging boys also have to contend with the advice, judgment and blame of friends, relatives, and strangers at the playground and supermarket. “You’ve got to be firmer, more consistent, stop giving in to him,” they say. This ever-present criticism is painful, but it isn’t even as bad as what is going on inside the mind of the parent of the challenging boy. You wonder what you are doing wrong and you can feel like you are a bad parent and that the problems you are having with your child are all your fault. It is a terrible thing to have a difficult problem to solve and on top of that to feel judged by others and blamed by yourself. While it is easy to get into criticizing yourself and blaming yourself, you need to stop it. You may ask why shouldn’t you blame yourself?

First, it isn’t your fault! Dr. James Garbarino, internationally recognized expert on child development and professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says, “the only people who can really be totally self confident and sure about child rearing are people who don’t have children or people whose children are grown and out of the home.” In other words, when other people advise or judge you, or when you blame yourself, you don’t know what you are talking about. Why is this? It’s because child development is so complex. It’s impossible to say “this causes that” in most instances. You may have heard of the “butterfly effect.” Mathematician Ian Stewart describes it this way “the flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen does.” The interplay of nature and nurture in the life of a developing child is so complex that it makes it impossible to ascribe blame and responsibility with any validity or accuracy.

Second, it doesn’t help! Placing blame doesn’t do anything to improve the situation. Even if you could assign blame accurately, there is still a problem to solve regardless of whose fault it was. There’s a great scene in the movie “Apollo 13.” The three astronauts are many thousands of miles away from the earth in their damaged spacecraft. The tensions are running high. There is a very real possibility that they won’t make it home alive and they start getting into trading blame. Finally the astronaut played by Tom Hanks interrupts the blame and says,  “We’re not doing this, gentlemen. We are not going to do this. We are not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes. We’re just going to end up right back here with the same problems, trying to stay alive.” The whole movie is full of the theme of “working the problem” versus panicking, losing hope, blaming. This scene illustrates how placing blame actually prevents us from gaining a real understanding of the problem and of coming up with a plan to solve it.

Third, blame creates a cycle of guilt and anger! Perhaps the most destructive aspect of blaming yourself is that it creates a cycle of guilt and anger that makes everyone involved unhappy. When you blame yourself you feel guilty about having caused the problem and your self-esteem and mood suffer accordingly. The thing about guilt, however, is that is not a stable emotion. Eventually when the guilt feelings get strong enough, they reverse into anger. It is as if you say “wait a minute, it’s not my fault. It’s his (referring to your son).” Now you are at risk of losing your cool and blowing up at your son or saying something to him that will be hurtful and that you regret.

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