I was frustrated with a teenager this week. In the session all she seemed to do was complain about her parents, her friends, her teachers, her homework and her life. When I asked her what she was going to do about it, she threw back at me, “What can I do…it’s their problem!” Once I got over my frustration, I thought,”There is the classic approach to problems…blame and wait”.
Growing up is the gradual process of accepting responsibility. When our children are babies they are fully dependent and not responsible for much at all. If there is a problem, they reasonably expect others to notice it and fix it. But babies grow. And as they grow their ability to understand what is going on gradually matures, as does their options in dealing with whatever comes their way. They complain less, blame less, wait less.
Mature adults (also known as “grown ups”) don’t wait for others to do the right thing by them. If something goes wrong, they ask themselves “what is my role and responsibility in dealing with this”. They accept that others are free to act well or badly, and they give themselves the freedom to act accordingly. They don’t get stuck in complaining and blaming. They don’t wait for someone else to save them. They accept that life can be unfair, and act responsibly anyway.
They may ask for help from others, but the problem always remains their own, never someone else’s. They don’t wait for approval from others, they approve of themselves.
One of the common themes I hear from parents is that their young person complains about their problems, but doesn’t take responsibility for them, and instead waits for the parent (or someone else) to do fix it. Blaming others leads to feeling like a victim, believing that only the other person can fix the injustice, and that awful mix of helplessness and disappointment.
As parents we can help our kids grow up and take responsibility in three main ways:
- Don’t be a hypocrite. Model responsibility for our own lives and relationships. Don’t wait for others to do the right thing. Instead, ask these two questions when problems occur for you as parents:
- what is my role in this situation?
- what is my responsibility to change it?
- Gradually supporting your child by gently but firmly putting their problems back on them and decreasing our natural tendency to try to save and fix things for them.
- When our child complains about unfairness or problems in their life:
- Validate their complaints: “I see you, I hear you, I’m trying to understand”.
- Offer yourself: is there anything I can do to help you with your problem? Do you want to talk with me about it? If they try to get you to take on their problem, say you can’t do that, but you are willing to help you if you can.
- Expect anger if you don’t take on their problem as your own. When things have settled, validate and offer a couple of times your wish to help them with their problem if they want you to.
Don’t expect rapid change in your kids, as taking enough responsibility is a lifelong challenge. Who as an adult hasn’t been seduced by the quiet relief of blaming someone or some group for our own problems? It is infantile, immature and thus deeply human to blame others. So cut yourself and your kids some slack if taking responsibility is a challenge. But also keep gently but firmly modeling responsibility for problems within your relationships.