For Children, the Default is “My Fault” When Something Happens

A key responsibility for parents throughout their parenting “career” involves intentionally and mindfully knowing and appreciating some basic principles of child development. By knowing and appreciating some of these basics, parents can adjust their responses to their children’s behaviors to be fairer and better able to meet the needs of their children.

How parent’s responses can confuse their children?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Development, Mother and Grandmother

In her book Childhood Disrupted, author Donna Jackson Nakazawa shares the following: “… As psychologists have long known, when kids feel that something is being kept secret, when no one speaks to them about what’s happening or why, but they know that something feels wrong, they assume that it must be bad, and that it must be about them. If no one is talking about it, that must mean it’s their fault, it must mean that they are the one who is bad.” [Page 67]

Think about how often parents treat their kids differently in private, perhaps yelling, being physical, saying very harsh things to them, like, “You’re so bad!” “You’re the reason I have these headaches!” “You just love to make me crazy, don’t you?” And then acting in totally different ways, being loving and affirming in public. “Oh, she is just the best little girl in the world!” or “He’s the joy of my life!” 

Is your child confused? Does your child reflect an attitude of shame?

Sometimes children become confused and tend to listen more to what is being said privately because blaming and shaming messages usually trump affirmations: if the child can’t be both things, he or she must be the one that is the most wrong. Children also realize that some things are kept secret, especially things that reflect poorly on them or their families, which then can promote a deep sense of shame.

When parents fight with each other in private and then are sweet to each other in public, children can experience deep confusion. If parents then announce to children that they are separating or divorcing, children will assume that it is their fault, because they have taken in all those messages that are negative and because they are naturally egocentric.

Being egocentric does not mean that children are selfish.

Rather, it means that part of their natural development includes them assuming they are responsible for all that happens around them, including the bad things. It can be very helpful when parents appreciate this egocentric nature of children, understanding that their children will assume things are their fault and will especially be tuned into those secretive statements that focus on how bad or wrong they are.

When children assume something is their fault, it is hard for parents to change their children’s minds because deep down, children assume the bad things that happen around them truly are their fault. “Sweetheart, you did nothing wrong. Mommy and Daddy just can’t stay together anymore.”  Children may nod dutifully, but deep down are sure they caused their parents to decide to separate.

When children blame themselves, what can parents do?

  • First, remember that children take in the world in egocentric ways. They assume that the world revolves around them and that the things that happen in the world are their fault. This is a developmental norm through much of childhood and certainly up until the ages of seven or eight.
  • Acknowledge that children in general often feel responsible for things that happen around them because that is the way children are. “You know, most children feel like it must be their fault with parents struggle with their marriage [or whatever the event is.] It is a normal feeling even thought it is not the truth.”
  • Keep the lines of communication open by accepting how a child feels and put words to those feelings. “It feels to you like you did something to make Mommy and Daddy want to split up.” That is a very big burden for any child to have to handle and many children feel like that when bad things happen.” 

By hearing and appreciating what a child is feeling, adding that it is normal, and then affirming that all these things are not their fault, children may be able to soften their negative feelings about themselves and their tendency to self-blame. You may have to repeat this information multiple times, allowing your child many opportunities to express real feelings and to gently hear alternatives for self-blame.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Are there times when your children may have taken unfair responsibility for the actions of others? Does this information clarify for you why they, and most children, react that way?
  2. Do you feel better equipped now to respond without negating those feelings, and by first accepting them and then gently giving them ways to lessen their self-blame?
  3. When it comes to imposing and enforcing consequences, how clear are you about the principles and practices that can maintain your child’s emotional health as well as a healthy relationship between you and your child?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network