- As your child's supporter and protector, in their mind, this means that you can and should solve all their problems and prevent all pain.
- Getting defensive to prove you are not to blame is not helpful. Kids are not rational in these moments. Reasoning incites them further.
- Validating and helping kids manage these upsets helps them learn to cope when things go wrong and to take responsibility for their actions.
Do all 4-year-olds blame their mothers for all of their mistakes or when anything goes wrong? My daughter drops pizza on the floor, I’m responsible. I get a drip of water from her toothbrush on her shirt and I did it on purpose. She falls off her scooter, I made it happen, and, according to her, I should never have bought the scooter (she had begged for!) to begin with! Don’t I know that she HATES scooters?!”
I hear stories like these all the time from parents (and not just of 4-year-olds), and recall this charming phenomenon from my own days in the childrearing trenches.
With 20–20 hindsight, and decades of working with kids since mine were little, I have gained some insight into the roots of these reactions and what children need from us in these moments to learn to accept their failures and manage their mistakes—the ultimate goal.
Why Our Kids Blame Us
It’s hard to fail. It feels bad, and, for many kids, it’s experienced as shameful and embarrassing. Projecting blame is a way to deflect and protect themselves from these difficult feelings. These are very complex and uncomfortable emotions that kids don’t have the self-awareness or capacity to deal with maturely and effectively. “I hate falling off my scooter. I don’t like feeling out of control, and it is embarrassing. But it’s not anyone’s fault, failure is just a part of learning, so I am going to take my deep breaths and persevere.” This is an unrealistic expectation for a young child. (Most of us know adults who deflect and don’t take responsibility for their actions.)
One way to manage these overwhelming feelings is to project/externalize them by blaming others in order to get rid of the bad feeling. So, when they lose in Candyland, they blame you, or a sibling, for cheating. They miss a goal in soccer and blame a teammate for making a bad pass. (Note that children who are highly sensitive tend to experience shame more quickly and intensely than other children who can shake things off more easily.)
You are their people—the ones they trust to always have their back and to keep them safe and secure. You are always there for them and they know it—which is a great thing. This also means—in their minds—that you can solve all their problems and prevent all pain. So, when that doesn’t happen, they are angry and take their distress out on you.
This is especially true if, as one mom put it, you are your child's "emotional support animal,” which is exactly what so many parents of highly sensitive children/big reactors feel. Their kids are triggered into dysregulation (a.k.a. meltdowns) at the drop of a dime, literally. So, they find themselves working 24/7 to help them cope: making sure the one pair of pants they will wear is clean every morning; preparing their food to ensure there is nothing foreign they aren't expecting (like a stray poppy seed that found its way onto the child's plain bagel); going through the plan for the next day six times before lights-out and ensuring there is no divergence from it. You know the drill.
These kids are so dependent on their moms and dads—who have become experts at anticipating challenges and trying to head them off, for everyone's survival—to scaffold their worlds. So when things go awry, they get all the blame.
What You Can Do
Avoid getting defensive and trying to convince your child that you haven’t done anything wrong, because it conveys that your child’s accusation is valid—that there is something to defend.
Also, remember that in these moments, children are not thinking and acting rationally, so trying to use logic to convince them of how ludicrous their perspective is is just not useful. Pointing out the insanity of their accusation (“What in the world are you talking about? I was far away from you when you fell off the scooter!” “I did not cheat!”); trying to convince them it’s not a big deal (“It’s just some water on your shirt. You’re fine”); and trying to get them to take responsibility for their actions (“You were the one who dropped the pizza!”) are all tactics that usually result in children doubling-down, defending their position even more fiercely, as irrational as it might be. “You did so cheat!” This just leaves you in the abyss of trying to rationalize with a person in an irrational state.
Give voice to and show compassion for the underlying issue: “I know, you don’t like falling off your scooter. I also find it hard when things don’t happen the way I want them to.” “I know you don’t like it when water gets on your shirt. It feels uncomfortable.” “I know it’s really hard to lose. I feel that way too, sometimes. It took me a long time to learn to get comfortable with it so I could enjoy games.”
Give them space. Pause and be the calm presence they need, after you have acknowledged their experience/perspective. This shows that you can tolerate your child’s distress and that you aren’t going to jump in to make it all better.
In our well-meaning fervor to get kids to see failure as positive—as an important part of learning—we tend to rush to reassurance: “Everyone falls when they first ride a scooter. It’s how we learn to work on getting better!” In so doing, we miss the most important first step—validation of their experience, When we go straight to the palliatives, it’s a disconnect. The child doesn’t feel heard or understood, and it often ups the ante to show you just how badly you have wronged them. Or, they just shut you down. Common responses are “Stop talking to me! Stop telling me that!”
Most importantly, when we rush to try to make it all better, we send the child the message that we don’t think they can handle this upset.
Offer to help your child think through how they want to move forward: Do they want to try again? Do they need to take a break from the game and try again later? Do they want to hear some of your ideas for how to problem-solve the situation (short of doing it for them)? This might mean offering to hold onto the handle of the scooter as a support as they get comfortable with learning how to balance, asking if they want to change into a dry shirt, or asking if they’d like to get themselves a fresh piece of pizza.
But, remember, manage your expectations. In the middle of the storm, most children are not able to think clearly or to be able to process your input/ideas. They are flooded with emotion, so trying to problem-solve with them in the moment may not be effective and can result in an increase in dysregulation. Sometimes you just have to witness and weather the storm.
Revisit the incident in a quiet moment, if your child is open to it:
Start by tuning in to your child’s experience and showing acceptance and validation. This will reduce the chance that your child will get defensive out of the box and shut down. “Learning how to balance on the scooter can take time. That was tough today.” “Learning to get comfortable with losing may take time. I worked hard at it because I wanted to be able to have fun playing games with my friends and family. I can help you with that when you are ready.”
Share your own stories of times you have failed or made mistakes, how it made you feel, and how you muscled through. Kids love to hear stories about you. They learn from them and also feel understood and less alone.
Ask about their feelings but don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk about it. Whatever they share, acknowledge without judging or jumping in to reassure.
Brainstorm ideas for how your child might persevere, if they are open to it: “Do you have any ideas about what might help you feel more comfortable trying again?”
Ask for permission to share your ideas: “I have some ideas about what might help/next steps. Do you want to hear them?”
For many of the kids I work with, even these discussions in a quiet moment can feel overwhelming. It is very uncomfortable for them to reflect on emotionally charged experiences. In that case, I find it best to just acknowledge that it was a difficult experience for them and that you are always there to help them think it through and try again when they are ready. Trying to force the discussion is likely to increase their defenses and make it less likely they will be open to sharing with you when they are ready.