“The greatest impetus towards maturation is role-modelling. If you want your child to develop self-responsibility over time, then show her how you face conflicts, with your partner, your community, your world – by taking responsibility and not getting mired in your own temptation to blame others.” — Robin Grille
“He Started It!” “It’s Your Fault!”
Understanding Your Child’s Blame Stage
Children can be the most forgiving people in the world. Sound crazy? Well, here is how I came to that conclusion. I’m a psychotherapist. You could say I’m a member of the blame-your-parents industry. For 25 years, I have listened to people’s most heart-rending stories of tragedy, hope, terror, shame, loss, disappointment and triumph. Almost every time, stories conclude this way: “…but don’t get me wrong! My parents were good parents. Sometimes their life-stress was too much… they did their best.” In a flash, the adult sitting before me who was once a tender child, abandons his or her own pain to defend their parents’ honour.
Not one of us had perfect parents, yet most people tend to downplay the most hurtful things that their parents may have done. Curiously, we don’t tend to extend the same loyalty and forgiveness towards ourselves – the readiness to self-blame is ever-present: ‘I got smacked because I was a brat. I must have deserved it. I must have been too much for my mother, etc’
Here is the problem: unless we can allow ourselves to feel from the point of view of the child we once were; we cannot take-in the empathy that others might offer us – and without the give-and-take of empathy, there is no growth.
In a healing process, forgiveness cannot be the first cab off the rank. The premature attempt to forgive those who have hurt us simply blocks all other feelings before they can be expressed; it blocks a true connection with Self. For the healing of emotional wounds to take place, we need to begin with the inner-child’s perspective. Usually, the wounded child’s path towards restoring emotional balance begins with blame.
Bear with me: I suspect this idea might seem like trouble, since we all are told that blame is toxic, and we all tend to feel its corrosive effect on relationships. Individuals and families I have worked with have taught me to lose my fear of blame, and in fact to see it as a potential first step to release, empowerment, and a re-opening of the heart. Here is what I mean:
Once a person finds a safe place to vocalize blame: from the depths of their gut and heart to blame those who have brought them pain, then the next steps of healing flow more naturally. For a little while at first, we seem to need the freedom to be child-like; to say: ‘you shouldn’t have done that – I did not deserve that!’ Scary perhaps, but at times this might even include the passion of ‘I hate you’. By giving vent to any blame or resentment we have harboured, we are freed to feel compassion towards ourselves, opening an inlet for the empathy of others. From there we can feel empowered, we can grow and learn new ways of being and relating. So, if instead of trying hard to ‘let go’ of the past, we give ourselves permission to express our ‘negative’ feelings, the past begins to gently let us go free, one strand at a time.
Blame is like a tunnel that we must pass through, not to linger in, but to embrace nonetheless. Our emergence to liberation depends of how we pass through this ‘tunnel’. So, what is it about blame that makes it necessary for the healing of childhood emotional wounds?
Blame is a stage of childhood.
From a small child’s point of view, Life is what happens to her. She is entirely at the mercy of her universe – how much effect can a little child have, realistically, on her destiny? From her perspective, you the parent are like a God. Looking up at you from two feet off the ground and thinking with a fledgling brain; the bad stuff really does seem like your fault! So when the weather is wrong, she may even see that as your fault ‘Why couldn’t you make the sun come out, Mummy?’
Blame as a developmental milestone.
There is nothing elegant or refined about childhood. You have heard it said that lying is a natural stage for toddlers, with their wild imaginations. Well, so is blaming, and in fact it serves a vital developmental purpose. Round about the time when your child begins to stand, take his first few steps, and to discover language; the developmental stage of ‘attachment’ starts to wane. It’s goodbye baby, hello toddler. Whereas a baby does not have the equipment to handle conflict or disappointment – this is precisely what begins to grow for the toddler.
When baby becomes toddler, it’s time for parents to begin setting boundaries, for saying ‘no’, and increasingly for locking horns in disagreement. Conflict enters the home; and at times, love now also includes tug-of-war and wrestling! Here are some of the most common conflict themes:
Junk food wars: No more sweeties (when one more milligram of sugar will turn him into Jim Carrey on steroids)
Parental self-preservation: no more bed-time story (when your eyelids are drooping somewhere below your chin)
Square-eye prevention: no more TV tonight
Sibling politics: no, don’t snatch that toy from your little sister, no don’t push your little brother over
Weapon control: no don’t swing that stick overhead in the playground
Occupational Health and Safety: No running around the slippery swimming pool, no running-off near a busy highway
Conflicts as above are unavoidable – but more interestingly: they are necessary. Learning how to maintain love in the face of disagreement is part of the developmental plan; an essential strengthening experience for your child.
Think about it this way. In the attachment stage, the most important things for a baby to learn about are human trust, intimacy, dependability and affection. For a toddler however, the developmental task involves learning to manage and resolve interpersonal conflict – with respect, and without loss of dignity. Children need to learn that conflict will not destroy a relationship but instead can deepen it – if we know how to resolve conflict responsibly, that is. If everybody learned this well in childhood; wouldn’t this be a very different world?
How toddlers deal with conflict
For a toddler, the discovery that Mum and Dad are not so agreeable anymore – that they have limits, needs, feelings of their own – comes as a kind of shock. Initially, this feels to them like a betrayal, since as a defenceless baby they could (hopefully!) count on unending endearments.
At this momentous turning point, the secure and confident toddler begins to develop a revolutionary new strength. Something new emerges, something the baby could never do: the full-frontal protest. The toddler’s protest is very, very different to the protest of a baby, as you will see in the passages that follow.
It is by protesting her disillusions loud and clear that the toddler re-empowers herself. For the toddler, the protest is the very mechanism through which she makes things right for herself, when the previously heroic Mummy and Daddy have fallen from grace, and no longer seem to agree to all her wishes.
Blame is simply the child’s immature attempt at protesting when the world is not how he wants it. To illustrate: if an adult’s ‘I statement’ to express displeasure can be likened to running; then infantile blame is like crawling. It is a necessary, preliminary developmental step. So, as a first tentative bid for independence, a toddler says to the world: “if you refuse to give me what I wanted, or to be the way I wanted you to be – then I won’t go easy. I will scream. I will ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’. I will give you a bad review on mummy.com I will downgrade your credit rating”. With folded arms and a raspberry on the lips, the toddler declares that you suck.
Is this a little hard to take sometimes? You bet! And that is why it is so important for us to understand the purpose: the toddler and child’s protest is an important building block for her growing sense of autonomy. It is partly through blaming that she begins to take over the task of self-parenting from you, to make things right for herself when the world disappoints her. Through blaming the child says: ‘if you are not exactly how I wanted you, then for now I can do without you!’ Or in other words: ‘if you are not there for me, then I am there for myself!’ Infantile blame is a primitive way of saying: ‘even when the world lets me down, I am still OK’
What the blame sounds like
Let’s face it; blame was never going to sound very nice. It goes something like this: ‘you are a poo-poo!’, ‘you’re too bossy!’, ‘you always make me pick up my toys!’, ‘you never let me stay up late!’ ‘you’re mean!’, ‘I never get what I want!’ (note that the words always and never get lots of airplay now). Sometimes it gets a little more spicy: ‘I hate you!’, or: ‘I don’t like you anymore!’ Sound familiar?
It’s not surprising that some parents are shocked by this. Take comfort: some of this is normal and it may take a long time for your child to learn more tactful and self-responsible skills for dealing with life’s constant let-downs. Outbursts such as these do not necessarily indicate that your child is getting ready to become a world-class bully.
Why protest is so important
All too often, the child whose protest is stifled ends up self-blaming and self-deprecating instead. The outcry implodes and turns against the Self, in the form of shame – as if life’s disappointments are evidence of the child’s unworthiness. Mum won’t read to me because I am a bad boy. Dad won’t let me watch more cartoons on TV because I am a bad girl. So, to begin with, what saves the toddler from sinking into shame is to make a fuss; to express the grievance outwardly, to push back against a disappointing world.
Alternatively, when protest is crushed, censored or punished, some children react later by inappropriately blaming or punishing someone else. The unexpressed angry charge lingers inside, to be unleashed later on some new unsuspecting target; the little brother, the family cat, another child at pre-school.
Researchers have found that survivors of childhood physical abuse (usually rationalised as righteous punishment) do not always pass this violence to their own children. What makes the difference? The buck stops with them only if they strongly and openly reject the treatment they have received, and maintain that it was inappropriate.
Certainly, most of us do not consider ourselves abusive or neglectful parents. But are we not all imperfectly human, and in our stress or ignorance wound our children from time to time? Do we not at times do or say regrettable things to our children? For a child, blame must be passed back to the perceived source, often to us the adults – or the blame will be passed inwards or passed forward.
How parents can help
Parents need this reassurance: saying yes to your child’s emotional expression is not the same as saying yes to violence. If we really get this distinction, then it is OK for your child to feel angry, what is not OK is that he hit anyone or break valuables. In other words, you can support the expression of emotion, without supporting destructive behaviour. Your child just needs the space – and the support – to let it out.
At first, your toddler’s protests may be full of accusation and derogation. As much as you can, be patient with this, he is just a beginner! Without a doubt, to speak our anger and disappointment responsibly and without blame is a critically important skill to learn, and to teach our children. With a toddler however, begin this lesson slowly and gradually, be patient with his lack of decorum, and wait until the primary school years before you insist on a more self-responsible approach.
Here are some examples of how we can support emotion but not destructive behaviour:
- ‘Its really OK to be angry with your sister – but its definitely not OK to hit her’
- ‘Well, I do understand your disappointment – but I still need to keep the rest of the candies from you today. I’m worried what more would do to your tummy!’
A sense of humour will come in very handy (as long as you are not teasing or belittling your child). For instance, if you are blamed for something that is clearly beyond your influence, you could good-naturedly say: ‘Wow! Do you really think I made it rain today? I must be more powerful than I thought…’
Your greatest asset by far will be a strong sense of Self. You will notice that when you feel secure in yourself, your child’s infantile blame does not wound or offend you.
Finally, we need patience, growing up from the blame-stage does not happen overnight. It is a piece-meal process. Over the years, the greatest impetus towards maturation is role-modelling. If you want your child to develop self-responsibility over time, then show her how you face conflicts, with your partner, your community, your world – by taking responsibility and not getting mired in your own temptation to blame others.
Most of us can at times over-react to the infantile blame we receive as parents. Our child’s blame presses a button. It reminds us of an earlier time, perhaps when we were young and someone shamed us, humiliated us, accused us or put us down – maybe it was our parents, our teachers, our peers, a bully at school or at work. It is not our child that hurts us – that hurt was already there, just under the skin. Our child simply acts as a trigger, he exposes a wound that we had forgotten; a place inside where we ourselves need healing.
When it’s time for your child to grow up
You’ll be glad to hear that none of us need accept blame forever. Blame is about lack of personal power; so as an individual becomes more empowered and self-confident, the need to blame others falls away.
As your toddler begins to enter childhood, leaving behind that magical world of imagination (round about late pre-school, early primary), then it might be time for you to begin making some new demands. For instance, you could begin saying: ‘it’s OK to be angry, I understand your anger – but I don’t like you talking to me (or your brother, etc) like that’ Gradually begin showing your child that her speech can have an impact. Be prepared to stand up to your child, to stand up for yourself or for someone more vulnerable. Making an ‘I statement’ is the best way to assert your needs and feelings without in turn blaming your child. But remember: The child whose feelings have been consistently respected will fastest learn to respect your feelings – as long as you are committed to asking for that respect.
How we block the growth process
As concerned parents, when we hear our children blaming we risk working too hard and too soon to train them out of it. At times, we might try to get them to take ownership prematurely and sound more like a grown-up. In a knee-jerk, we react to censor – perhaps as it was done to us when we were children.
Some parents respond by guilt-tripping, along the lines of: ‘Poor me, can’t you understand me?’ The more authoritarian among us might retort thus: ‘don’t talk back!’ ‘watch that back-chat mister!’ Yet other parents buckle under and give-in to the wishes of the protesting child: ‘OK, if it’s so important to you, you can have more chocolate’. All the above are recipes for losing the child’s respect, or driving the child’s outcry underground.
Growing up: from blame to self-responsibility and personal power
Getting stuck in blame long-term prevents us from growing up into self-responsible individuals. We all sense that blame is toxic. It’s the number one impediment to resolving conflict. And it’s generally awful to listen to. When we hear an adult blaming, we want them to ‘grow up’ – as if instinctively we know that blame is childish.
And yet, most of us get stuck in blame from time to time. How often do we hear ourselves – or our friends – issuing a tirade of blame against the government, or against corporations or some other authority? I’m certainly not immune to that. A blaming outburst is quite human; we all seem to do it.
A toddler is too young to be able to sustain a sense of self-responsibility, and realistically they are dependent and at the effect of adult decisions. No wonder they blame the world. But when as adults we get stuck in blaming, that is simply our ‘inner child’ showing. It is the part of us that still has some growing up to do; a part of our being that feels disempowered.
Consider this: when we hear ourselves stuck in blame, going over it again and again, that is a sure sign that we are feeling helpless, powerless to act, perhaps also feeling shame. Our blame language is a symptom, a signal that we need to learn some new way to express our personal power – or to examine how we have unwittingly contributed to the situation we are complaining about.
When for instance we linger in bitter blame of the government, or ‘big business’, that is sometimes a sign that we are not using our own power or initiative enough. Emotionally, we are like the child, and the ‘authority’ that we helplessly blame for the world’s ills is like the ‘bad parent’ or the ‘bad teacher’. If we choose to get involved in positive social, community or political action, we are likely to feel less mired in sourness or finger-pointing.I have certainly noticed that as I become more politically active and engaged (online petitions, blogging, letters to politicians, etc) I find that my tirades of blame, my rants of ‘anti-this’ and ‘anti-that’ become shorter and more infrequent. The language of ‘they’ gradually transforms into the language of ‘we’.
The hallmark of full, adult maturity is about taking ownership of our destiny, how our relationships work, and even how our world works. With the exception perhaps of those who are completely incapacitated by illness or poverty, we are each far more powerful as agents than we realized.
So, what if instead of punishing and moralizing against our children’s blaming, we elect to become good role-models of self-responsibility? Showing is always more powerful than telling.
This article was first published in the Australasian magazine, The Natural Parent
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