New Twist on Blame

New Twist on Blame

Kids know something that we don’t. Blame is a valuable power-building tool.

That’s right. There’s actually something good about blame:

Blame is a natural power builder.

One parent told me about her two young daughters jumping from couch to chair to couch in the living room laughing and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” “No, it’s your fault…”Another shared that her child repeatedly pretended to trip in front of her and blamed her with, “You tripped me. It’s your fault,” then burst out laughing. Both parents were horrified!

When we react by saying, “That’s not funny! Stop that,” we are going the wrong way. Essentially, we are increasing our children’s need to blame.

Why? Because these kinds of games seem to be children’s way to play out things in life that don’t seem right. In one way or another, the children are right.

Here’s how it works.

Consider this emotional progression that many of our children (and us) have experienced:

fear —> guilt (I did something stupid/bad) —>shame (I am stupid/bad/worthless, etc) —>blame (It’s not me! I can’t be stupid/bad; you are!)

Following the blank-minded moment of fear, our emotions are clearly coupled with thoughts (in parenthesis). These thoughts are what kick in the power builder. Since our beliefs about who we are often come from what we do, you can see that there’s no way our personal growth would stand by and allow us to convince ourselves we are something less than we really are. Blaming others or outside forces (“It’s not me!”)  is the perfect response, because you are right! Worthless (or whatever stupid means to you) is not who you are.

However, the reason the self-correcting mechanism of blame isn’t obvious is that we make it wrong.

When we are blocked from blaming outside forces, we end up blaming ourselves as in, “I’m so stupid!” Since blame is part of our natural power builder, we have to blame something. However, blaming ourselves increases our need for power and often creates resentment (blame with a lid on it, pressure cooker style) which slows us down. That’s why our kids play at blaming—to reclaim their natural growth mechanism and speed things up.

Instead of making your children’s blame games taboo, join in the play to see the child’s perspective. Or better still, follow their lead and, in a heated moment when you are past the point of SAYing WHAT YOU SEE, and about to dish out some scathing blame, go into it! Blame a nearby tree, the sky, the ceiling, or some other impossible source until you all lighten up and start laughing. It’s the quickest way I know to turn a blaming moment into a game and model a healthy alternative for children. After the laughter, it’s much easier for everyone to step more quickly into ownership, apology, and figuring out what to do differently next time.

How do you know that going into the blame is right for personal growth? Laughter is your proof!

Or, if that’s not proof enough for you, try it with a child. Something about it will feel very familiar when your child bumps into a table, blames the table, then upon hearing your validation of “That table shouldn’t have done that!” laughs and says, “It wasn’t really the table; it was me.”

If you try this, please let me know. Meanwhile, what blame games have you seen kids play? What blaming moments are hardest for you?


  1. The hardest Blame game is the never ending story blame game that seems to start at the beginning of time (you were born) and ends in the present. It is so hard to find a starting place!

    • Michelle,

      You are right that to process something out of existence by shifting it’s meaning (breakthrough), it is often helpful to find the point of origination. This is not that kind of processing. Finding the “good” in blame allows us to use it as the tool it was meant to be. The same applies to anger.

      When we stop fighting our “gifts,” and harness them, they do the work for us. Kids still know that, as you can see in their games like, “Pretend you’re really mad…” and “It’s your fault!” It is so hard for adults to get how those “games” could be fun. They are not games to us. Those of us who have demonized those feelings would never think to play like that. We have made the negative meanings we assigned to those emotions too real and spend our energy trying to avoid them.

      The simple CAN DO of stepping into the blame by blaming inanimate objects lets us skip the processing and use the tool! Over time, I suspect it can actually change our relationship to those feelings without any processing work, especially if we get that the kid’s playful point of view is actually correct.

  2. Angela |

    The blaming moments that are hardest for me are the ones where I am trying to do the right thing for my child by limiting unhealthy influences (media, junk food, etc.) and my child feels like he is the only child with these restrictions.

    • Angela,

      Those moment are hardest for us when we believe the blame. If a child’s blame of, “You’re mean,” etc. sets us off, our natural blame response kicks in, too, with things like resentment, “You’re not grateful,” etc., and because we believe blame is bad, wrong and real, the cycle perpetuates.

      To find out why you are reacting to a specific type of blame, look into your own hot buttons. The one you brought up, “being the only one,” was also one of mine. For me as a child, “being the only one” or standing out in any way was a terrifying thought. I was sure that “being the same” was the key to survival.

      As a parent, my unrecognized commitment to “being the same” was often in direct conflict with my commitment to my children’s well-being, particularly when it came to TV and lunches – similar examples to yours. Once you see where the conflict is coming from it’s easy to understand your own reactions. For example, instead of reacting with pride to setting rules that enforced well being like “no TV on school days” or healthy lunches, I was reacting to making my kids unacceptable to their peers. Who would want to do that?!!

      When I got that it wasn’t necessarily true, (lots of kids actually love to be different), I stopped reacting to the blame and started allowing it – easier to do when I knew it wasn’t true. When my response became, “Yep, you have the meanest mom on the block,” they were able to sit at lunch in elementary school eating their fruit and sandwich without it being their fault, while their friends ate candy and sodas and caught them up on the TV shows.

      But the best part was, since I was no longer reacting as though I was sentencing them to death, they actually began to wear their restrictions like a badge of honor by blaming me as in, “You think you’ve got it bad! My mom won’t let me…” which empowered them enough to see the restrictions for what they were – a commitment to their well-being that they carried on through life. They ended up being the kids in the salad line by choice in high school!

  3. Julia |

    I’m having some trouble following this one. Surely it’s because it’s close to home. Blame is such a powerful emotional trigger, and not one that I can easily get around.

    I still remember my daughter at two sitting and missing a chair and then saying, “Mom, it’s your fault, you let me fall. ” No doubt I was feeling at fault a bit, but it also struck me as so ridiculous that she would blame someone else. But she was not yet feeling very independent from me, so I could understand the connection. Yet I could not figure out what to do with it. I’ve seen others blame the chair in jest, which struck me as terribly odd- magical thinking- and not particularly helpful. But maybe I was missing something.

    I think you’re talking about trying to defuse the situation via humor …but you’re right…those emotions are too scary for me as an adult to play with! (Imagine how our kids feel about them!)

    • Julia,

      Thank you for that great example of a child’s natural use of blame as a power-building tool.

      Many two years olds would blame the chair, “Bad chair!” but when adults make blaming inanimate things off limits, people become the next available thing – especially people who react like it could somehow be true. Our reaction to blame as though it is bad or wrong is what makes it real and keeps kids stuck.

      In your child’s case, it sounds like blame was already real for her (how quickly they learn!), which would trigger you even more. If you had not been triggered, you could have helped her transition blame back from “real” to game by first accepting it, “Oh no! I was supposed to keep you from falling, and I didn’t!” then passing it on like a “hot potato,” “It wasn’t my fault, it was the rug. My feet are stuck, look! [tug at your feet then feign anger] Rug, you let go of my feet and let me catch my daughter next time!”

      While absurdity does defuse heated moments with humor, this humor comes from the deeper truth it reveals: blame is a natural power builder not a problem. When embraced and used as a tool, it is the quickest way to return a child’s sense of personal power and your own.

      So when the giggles pass and her need for power is filled, you can return to the fall and SAY WHAT YOU SEE, “You tried to sit and fell. You didn’t like that at all!” Then you can ponder CAN DOs together as in, “Hmmm. When I can’t help you get onto the chair, must be something you can do! I know, you can sit on the floor instead or put a pillow down and sit on that…”

      Hope that helps.

      PS If like me you’ve spent most of your life in the dark about blame, stop blaming yourself or your past and start blaming that tree over there. The practice can actually do you much more good!

  4. Angela |

    Thank you, Sandy. So helpful!

  5. Sandy-
    Love this. especially your little diagram:
    fear –> guilt (I did something stupid) –>shame (I am stupid, worthless, etc)–>blame (It’s not me! I can’t be stupid; you are!)

    So useful to us as parents to notice when we want to blame our child, and then take some responsibility. Not to blame ourselves, but to diminish our own shame and guilt and fear, which end up empowering us.

    So instead of “He hit the baby, bad boy, I don’t know what to do with him!” it becomes “I am so sorry I left you two alone together, now I know that is just too hard for you and I will stay close and keep everyone safe.”

    Shared your article on my FB page:

    • Laura,

      Thank you for sharing it and for the example in your comment that brings attention to the parent’s role in keeping both children safe – emotionally and physically.

  6. Sandy- It’s a pleasure to share such a terrific article. I’ll be quoting your “formula.” And I should add that in my comment, I meant that diminishing our own shame and guilt (by taking responsibility) ends up empowering us.

  7. Gloria |

    I guess I’m not fully grasping this concept because I don’t see how encouraging the Blame Game is helpful. How will the child learn to be responsible/accountable for their actions/words if they are taught it’s ok to blame others rather than saying “I was wrong. I made a mistake.” I would love your insight because my mother-in-law is one of those people who “are never wrong…’s someone else’s fault.” It irks me to no end how she is incapable of being accountable for her actions. I don’t want my kids to be that kind of people. Thanks!

    • Gloria,

      Thank you for bringing that up. This is a different way to see blame that explains why we do it and encourages compassionate understanding of those stuck in it. Plus it gives us a way out.

      No one likes heatedly blaming others or the feelings that drive us to do it. I doubt your mother-in-law does either. Your ability to say, “I was wrong. I made a mistake,” without allowing the mistake to define you as a bad and wrong person is to your credit. Since you are able to separate what you do from who you are, you are starting out with a more powerful sense of self. You are already at the point Laura described above where you can actually notice you want to blame before doing it.

      Not true for all people, especially those who can’t allow themselves to be wrong or make a mistake, i.e. those who blame. Perfectionists often top the list of blamers and here’s why: asking a perfectionist to own DOING something wrong, is actually asking them to own BEING something wrong like a bad person.

      Our kids are often in the same boat, because in childhood, when the physical world is all they know, it is natural for them to define who they are by what they do. Understanding this helps make sense of why some kids resist when we try to tell them it’s OK to make a mistake – they hear “BE wrong” as in bad, not “DO wrong” as in incorrect. Trying to correct this thinking usually doesn’t fix it, because there they are, wrong again! It’s also why trying to force them to accept responsibility for an action or apologize often backfires. People who blame are trying to claw their way back to a more powerful sense of self – as Laura says, a place where taking responsibility actually increases their sense of power.

      But when they are not at that place yet, trying to make them step over their feelings of blame or stuff them down and apologize actually makes accepting responsibility harder. Instead, role modeling how to turn blame into a game by blaming silly things and exaggerating encourages kids to express but redirect their feelings so the natural blame mechanism can accomplish its power building task of reassuring them that they are not bad or wrong. In that moment when they finally see “what they did” and “who they are” pop apart, they laugh. That’s when you also hear them accept responsibility willingly and say, “I know it really wasn’t the chair…”

      Learning to separate what we do from who we are is breakthrough territory for personal growth. Making blame into a game gets kids there quicker.

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try to bring a bit more clarity to this difficult topic. If this reply brings up more questions, please let me know. It really is a new twist on blame.

  8. Andrea Divino |

    Sandy, my daughter (8), a total perfectionist, is very quick to lash out and blame when she is hurt, embarrassed, etc. no matter who’s fault it is. I could never figure out the ‘why’, and I had no idea how to handle it, other than to tell her that we don’t blame in our family and sometimes she just has to take ownership for things that happen. Oops! No wonder those tactics weren’t working! lol And I do tell her that sometimes we just need to laugh at ourselves when things happen, so I was somewhat on track with the humor, but I’ll definitely try blaming something silly and see if that approach works! Thanks!!

  9. Ashlee O. |

    I’m wondering how to apply this to siblings? My 4yo has taken to blaming his little brother (2yo), especially when he’s done something he knows he was not supposed to. Even if I see him do it with my own two eyes, he’ll look at me and immediately say, “Brother did it!” It’s easier for me to imagine taking blame aimed at me and turning it into a game, but harder for me to think of how I would accomplish that on behalf of my 2yo who can’t speak for himself or join the game. I can tell I feel defensive for the little one- afraid that he’s going to feel resentful of brother always blaming him, as they get older. It’s hard to let go of the feeling that I’m communicating the fact that it’s okay for 4yo to shift blame, instead of owning a mistake (or a deliberate choice). But I can sort of see the power building aspect and how diffusing the heat of the moment can free everybody up to hear/discuss the issue behind it. I will have to give this a try. This is definitely a different approach!

  10. Ashlee, you want to find a way to help preserve your children’s relationship, and even though this is a new way of thinking for you, you are willing to try it. You definitely have an adventurous side!

    Since your older son needs a way to rebuild his power in order to accept responsibility when he makes mistakes or makes choices that he knows you don’t like, and he is naturally using blame-shifting as a strategy to do that, facilitating it in a way that works for everyone is the quickest route.

    Here are two things that you could try, and both will require you to appear sincere and a bit playful, not sarcastic:

    1. When he says, “Brother did it!” see if you can make him right, state his perspective, and then transfer the blame to an inanimate object to show him how that works, like: “You know somebody did it, and it couldn’t be you! Hmm. Maybe it was that chair (or whatever is nearby)…”

    If his eyes brighten and he joins in, he will be able to start there next time instead of with his brother. The more right you make him about the thing he’s blaming, the quicker he will be able to claim his part, even if at first it is just by cleaning up or correcting what he can.

    2. If he shifts the blame back to his brother, then that tells you he needs something more plausible to blame like a person, so step into the blame yourself like role-reversal play. That demonstrates that you are on his side, but more than that, shows that accepting blame doesn’t have to be devastating, which to him right now it is. That could sound like: “Maybe it was me! Aha! You caught me! I did it again; I’m always doing stuff like that!”

    Then try engaging him in a solution for cleaning up or correcting the problem with him in the power role. Role-reversal meets kids’ need for power very quickly and helps you recognize their STRENGTHs. You could ask for direction like: “What should I do now?” “Oh, you think I should fix it. Show me what to do…” Then point out everything he knows about fixing it.

    When it’s all cleaned up, if he still doesn’t own it yet, continue the role-play and move toward prevention, like, “I’m always doing things like that. Must be something I can do to change that,” and see what advice he gives you. You will know by a smile or a wink that he knows it’s really about him, and that’s good enough for now. The more you help him meet his need for power now, the quicker he will step into ownership.

    Let me know how it goes!–Sandy

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