When parents realize that their children might have either a behavioral or learning problem, the first thing many do is blame themselves. Parents are usually very frightened and worried about their children's behavior. This fear often manifests itself in negative ways. One of those ways is blame.
As problems continue, they start to externalize the blame to other people or institutions. They blame therapists and teachers who are ineffective in managing their child. As the child gets older, parents blame his friends or the neighborhood or the music he listens to. As the child grows into a young adult, they blame drugs and alcohol, or our culture.
One of the real tragedies of dealing with behaviorally disordered children is when you see everybody blaming each other. The parent blames the teacher, the teacher blames the parent, the child blames both the teacher and the parents, and it goes on and on. I've seen many parents get stuck in battles that don't help their children. Don't get me wrong, parents often have to battle to get their kids the services they need in the school's economic environment. But all too often, parents use those issues and others as excuses to justify their child's lack of behavioral or academic development, and that becomes a habit that's hard to break. Parents can literally become dependent on blame. After all, it's easier to fight with the school than it is to fight with behaviorally disordered kids. Again, I'm not minimizing the resistance from schools that parents sometimes experience. But they have to remember to also keep the focus on the child.
The major problem with making excuses and giving explanations is that it doesn't help the child learn to manage him or herself or to perform. Blame prevents you from seeing your child in an objective light. Let's face it, parents have every reason to be afraid for kids who have behavioral problems or learning difficulties. Life is very demanding, and those demands start very early. Blaming and excuse-making go hand-in-hand, and they prevent you from understanding that no matter what the handicapping condition, no matter what the problem, each child has to learn to perform in a socially acceptable manner. Your child has to learn how to solve problems. They have to learn to interact socially as well as learn how to change and grow. It's true that there are cases where kids have a harder time learning than others. But that should be no excuse, because your child is going to have to be able to perform when he becomes an adult, no matter what.
Excuses, Excuses: What's Your Kid's Excuse?
Children shouldn't be allowed to blame other people, places or things for not meeting expectations or completing tasks. In reality, when a child blames someone else, he's saying "It's not my responsibility because I'm a victim of that person, label, or thing." For instance, in the classic, "My dog ate my homework," what the child is really saying is "I'm a victim of the dog, so I shouldn't be held to the same standard as the other kids." Make no doubt about it: kids who see themselves as victims and are allowed to perpetuate that rationale have a tough time achieving the very difficult milestones that early life development demands. When kids play the victim game with their parents or teachers, they should be told, "Blaming the dog doesn't solve your problem. You need to have your homework done by the end of the day or you'll get a zero." Parents can also utilize that same analogy when dealing with social situations. "Blaming your sister for why you hit her doesn't solve the problem of 'no violence in our home,' and you know the consequences for hitting." And have your child perform those consequences immediately. Consequences for inappropriate behaviors should be clearly understood by everyone before incidents occur. Remember, consequences are the results of poor choices, and not the punishment for bad behavior.
On the other hand, when parents make excuses for their children, it's a way that they minimize the problems their children are having. Often, excuses are simply the explanations. The parent sends a note to school saying, "Tommy wasn't feeling well. Please accept his lateness to school." That's fine. But parents of children with behavioral problems are forced to make explanations every day, and these explanations transform into excuses for the child's behavior. They excuse the child's refusal to do schoolwork at home. They make excuses for the child fighting and arguing with other kids, both in and out of the house. They make excuses for the child's rudeness. Some are very understandable: There's been a divorce. Or there are family problems at home and the parents are having problems, which manifest themselves in the behavior of the children. Sometimes it's a learning disability or mental health diagnosis that parents use to try to explain their kid's unwillingness or inability to perform.
Let me begin by saying I have empathy for those parents who are dealing with kids who have behavioral and social disorders and learning disabilities. I encourage their efforts to get the right services for their children. Nonetheless, my experience from working with older children is that the validity of these handicapping conditions for explanations of inappropriate behavior or a lack of functioning skills become less and less meaningful as time goes by. No matter what the diagnosis is in early or middle childhood, these children have to grow up and learn to perform like adults.
It's my experience that parents put a lot of effort into seeking the right diagnosis, looking to the diagnosis to change the behavior. I've had parents tell me triumphantly that their child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or ADHD, as if that changes anything. It doesn't. The bitter truth in this situation is that that child still needs to learn to perform. What happens in these cases is that parents identify their children as the victim, a victim of a learning disability, a victim of a mental health problem, which they use to make excuses for the child's inappapropriate behavior and poor performance. The problem with "victim" thinking is that it lessens the expectation that the child will learn to take care of himself in the adult world. Know this: Adults with ADHD or bipolar disorder still have to get up every morning and go to work, get along with their colleagues, respect their supervisors, and perform and be productive. Kids with dyslexia, Asperger's syndrome, or other neurological impairments have to lead productive lives if they want to make it in society. There's just no getting around that.
If you see your child as a victim, he will eventually see himself that way, too. This is perhaps the most treacherous part of blaming and excuse making, because it develops one of the worst possible perceptions in kids: "Since I'm a victim, the rules don't apply to me." Herein lies the real danger. There are rules that accompany learning. There are rules that accompany individual change. Children who don't follow those rules often don't learn and don't change. And you'll hear much too much focus on the child as "victim" and not the child as participant in his own education and maturation.
Let me be clear: excuse-making is not a sign of bad parenting. It's simply ineffective. It's very difficult for parents to be firm when their kids are having a harder time than other kids. But firmness is what it takes. My son has dyslexia. In school, that was a real impediment to his learning. Nonetheless, he had to do the work. We got him the help he needed when we could, but he still needed to learn to write and read and perform in the adult world. His dyslexia was a problem that he had to learn to solve and our job was to help him to learn to do that. Parents cannot solve their child's behavioral and learning problems for them. They have to empower the child to do that themselves, and that starts with this thought: Stop seeing your child as a victim and blaming external situations for his individual predicament.
If You've Been Playing the Blame Game, Here's How to Stop
If you've been making excuses for your child's behavior, you need to be straightforward in addressing the problem. The "Alternative Response" method in The Total Transformation Program is a helpful guideline to this kind of conversation. Sit down with your child and point out that whatever it is you're doing now isn't working any more. Gauge your remarks based upon the age and developmental level of your child. The younger the child, the more simplistic the conversation has to be. In any case, the conversation should be brief and to the point. I can't stress enough the importance of not making a lot of justifications or giving in to emotionalism. Don't say, "I'm sorry we let you down." A simple, "This isn't helping you," is fine. Explanations longer than that invite arguments which we like to avoid when we can.
This is your chance to make a fresh start. You can say, "Our relationship with the school hasn't really been working, and how we've been handling things hasn't been working. We don't think it's giving you what you really need. So from now on, when you don't do your homework, this is how we're going to handle it. If you're abusive with our neighbors or friends or schoolmates, this is how we'll handle it." Spell out what will happen if they don't follow the rules: "From now on, if you don't do your homework, you won't be allowed to watch TV until it's done. If we see you abusing people, you won't be allowed to play your video games for the rest of the day." The best method is to have a short conversation, and then say, "I have something else I have to do now," and go do it. Don't make it a long, drawn-out affair.
Later on, follow through on the consequences you've laid out. You should expect a response that includes a wide range of acting out behavior, from verbal abuse to threats of non-performance, to sullen silence. Nonetheless, if you stick with this, in the long run, you're doing your child a big favor. Accountability for basic responsibility creates change. Excuses stifle change.
It's not about "Fault"--It's about Responsibility
When kids focus on excuses, parents need to focus on responsibility. Of course, some excuses are valid, and the responsibility for knowing how to sort that out rests with the parent. But many, many excuses are just simply that: thoughts children use to excuse themselves from not meeting their responsibilities. When those are raised in a conversation where a child wants to shift the focus away from the responsibility and onto the excuse, parents have to shift it back from excuse and onto the matter at hand: the child's responsibility.
So if you say, "Why didn't you do your homework," the parent is really asking, "Why didn't you meet your responsibility?" When your child says, "I forgot to bring my book home again," he's really saying, "It's not my fault that I didn't meet my responsibility." You need to respond by saying, "We're not talking about whose fault it is, we're talking about whose responsibility it is." In that way, you can shift the focus back onto the child's responsibilities and you won't get stuck in an argument about the nature of the excuse. If the child makes excuses about misbehavior, respond, "We're not talking about why you misbehaved, we're talking about why you didn't meet your responsibility."
If you argue or debate about the excuse, you're simply encouraging your child to come up with bigger and better ones.
My advice to parents: Don't argue, just focus on the responsibility.
Stop the Blame Game: How to Teach Your Child to Stop Making Excuses and Start Taking Responsibility is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.
James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."