Blaming Helps Relieve Emotional Pain
Blame is a way of discharging emotional pain. When we live together in families, we become part of a system that interacts with each other as well as impacts each other. Inevitably there will be blame. Each member of the family constructs their story from within including their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings and perceptions. A common way we seek to organize what is happening in our own minds is to think “Whose fault is this?” When we feel intense emotion, it often clouds our judgement and we only see a portion of the big picture. Usually, your child has a reason for the blame that may not be what you initially think. Often fear plays an important role where in addition to any unwanted consequences lies the need to protect their sense of self, their worthiness, lovability and importance in the relationship.
Blame often is turned either inward against the self or outward towards another. When turned inward, this leads to other feelings which might include guilt and shame. If left unchecked, these feelings are the seeds of a growing anxiety or depression. When a child lacks confidence in their own sense of importance in the world, blame might appear as a way of coping with the problem. The emotional distress feels too “big” to handle and the child will act out their negative emotions through destructive behaviors or self-harm.
Also common, is for the child to lash out at one or both parents. This allows the weight of responsibility to shift off of them and creates some emotional space. Often the parent will then feel disrespected or hurt, and lash out at the child either in frustration or through punishment. Though correcting negative behaviors is a necessary part of parenting, often the emotional connection and relationship bonding activities are lost at heightened times of distress.
Not only do children blame themselves or their parents, mothers or fathers often blame themselves or their partner. This can make it difficult for the couple to align and support each other during the crisis. Among one of the most common patterns is the attack defend pattern. Where one parent will criticize the other for not following through or handling the situation as they see fit and the other will defend themselves or their child. This leads to increased stress and disconnection in the family system.
Theme 1: Negative Comparisons
Bowen, Madill and Stratton (2002), identified seven themes in which families navigate blame. The first theme involves negative comparisons where the behavior is categorized as “not normal.” Also, one of the parents will normalize the problem and categorize the behavior with a more positive adjective. This creates some polarization in the parent dyad or an alignment with the one parent and the child.
Theme 2: Disappointed Expectations
The second theme is around disappointed expectations and the family cohesion where they fight to stay unified as a family despite the challenges that came up and threatened to divide them. This involves enmeshed relationships where the parent may become overprotective or parents who struggle to agree on individual choice. Some parents may tolerate more than others the right for personal boundaries or ability to tolerate feeling helpless in relation to their child’s choices.
Theme 3: Communications Styles
The third theme that arose was around communication styles. There is a whole spectrum when considering how some families conceal feelings and creating space for sharing feelings. The most relevant emotional expressions surrounding how anger or frustration is shared with or around the child. Some may feel they had to walk away or the anger vented would be destructive while others may let loose their anger and feel guilty later. Parent’s also may develop a confronting style as a way to cope or an avoidant style where the issue is buried as a way of protecting the child from needing to become the mediator between the two parents.
Theme 4: The Issue of Control
The fourth theme is around the issue of control. Some individuals may think that if a question is being directed at them then the underlying implication is that they are to blame. This can be disempowering. Many families experience power struggles between siblings or power struggles between parents. Parents may not agree on the benefits of empowering their children to make their own choices. Blame may appear in the parent’s thoughts about themselves meaning they are to blame for the behavior as “they are not consistent in following through.”
Theme 5: Awareness of Others
The fifth theme centers around awareness of others. Some children are sensitive to conflict and have a tendency to internalize blame. Some people are under the opinion that if a behavior infringes on another then speaking out is appropriate and needed. This may lead to productive problem solving and discussions. While some feel they may understand another’s position, many own that they have difficulty understanding the other person’s position in any given situation. If the child has a similarity to the parent in personality or situation, the parent may empathize and share that empathy with their child.
Theme 6: Negotiating Who Will Take Care of the Problem
The sixth theme is around negotiating who will take responsibility for the problem. At times, parents believe that the problem is completely the child’s and they as parents have no accountability. Some parent’s may be open to exploring their own contribution. Also, external factors outside of the family’s control, like illness and the healthcare system, or other systems may be seen as contributing to the problem.
Theme 7: Orientation to Time
The final theme identified in the study was around the family’s orientation to time. A family member may feel stuck in an event that occurred in the past that they are struggling to move through or overcome. Often unresolved and unprocessed grief is at the core. There are some family members who may be able to have a positive and open view about the future and seek to work proactively on goals while some couples struggle with feeling one is “stuck in the past” while the other is looking forward.
An important lesson learned from this study was that “criticism is often used by family members to communicate unmet expectations and needs…” (Bowen, Madill & Stratton, 2002, p.138). When a family member perceives little support and voices expectations the incidence of criticism increases as wells as the reflexive defensiveness in other members of the family. Another important distinction is the parent’s ability to have self-other distinction, where the parent can see a clear distinction between them and their goals and that of the child. Parents lacking this distinction will have an increased likelihood to blame themselves. Finally, children permitted to have some autonomy and allowed to pursue their own goals while feeling supported are less likely to blame.
Families have a myriad of things to juggle at the best of times and navigating these seven themes at a time of crisis is excessively more difficult. Therapists who are trained systemically understand how to help you or your family navigate away from blame, increase safety and how to express your needs and expectations from a place of vulnerability rather than reactivity.
Feel free to contact us today if blame is weighing you down.
Bowen, C., Madill, A. and Stratton, P. (2002), PARENTAL ACCOUNTS OF BLAMING WITHIN THE FAMILY: A DIALECTICAL MODEL FOR UNDERSTANDING BLAME IN SYSTEMIC THERAPY. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28: 129-144. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2002.tb00351.x