Helping Children Take Responsibility for Their Actions and Emotions

by Kim Kassay, M.S.

If you have children, work with children, or spend any amount of time with children, you have inevitably heard something to the tune of “he made me mad” or “she made me do it” at some (or many) points. Although this attribution error is not just a symptom of childhood, children are particularly frequent offenders. Especially when consequences are involved, many children are quick to blame someone or something else for their difficult feelings and/or poor choices. But why? Shouldn’t children’s minds be untainted and able to see things clearly? Nope! Children’s minds naturally go to the other-blame for negative emotions and actions because we are all born thinking irrationally and need to develop our ability to think logically, empirically, and functionally through life experiences and lessons. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult task when so many irrational messages are present and are reinforced in everyday interactions, which explains why many of us don’t have it all quite figured out as adults either.

While certainly not a cure-all, I think that helping children learn that they are the ones in control of their emotions and actions can go a long way. Not only does it help them take responsibility for the choices they make, but it also enables them to use strategies to cope with difficult feelings and situations (and sets the stage nicely for cognitive strategies when they learn that their way of thinking leads to their emotions and behavior). When no one or nothing else is to blame, you have no other option but to take ownership of the situation. Considering that childhood is in essence a time of dependence on others, helping children understand that they really are the ones in charge of how they feel and what they do is actually pretty empowering for them. Especially for children in particularly challenging situations, learning that no one can take away that element of self-control can be life changing. It may even foster the resiliency they need to survive.

So what can we do to help children understand this fundamental paradigm? One way is through the subtle messages we give them when we talk about how they are feeling and what they did. In our questions, comments, and reframing, we can convey the message that it is the child, not external forces, who is in charge of his/her emotions and actions. For example, rather than asking, “what made you feel sad?” ask, “why are you feeling sad?” and clarify that they made themselves feel sad when something happened, not because of it. Instead of “you hit him because he bumped into you,” say “you chose to hit him after he bumped into you” to promote responsibility for choices made. Another way is by pointing out the ridiculousness of believing “she made me do it” through humor. The age old question “if she told you to jump off a bridge would you do it?” works here. You could also ask if they were a video game character and the other person had the controller to their life. It is often helpful to directly explain that the child’s brain is the only thing that controls what their body feels and does. Lastly, if a child is stuck in a mode of other-blame, point out that by blaming someone else for their emotions or actions, they are actually saying that someone else is in charge of them (and this is generally not someone they want to give power to). Then ask if they are in charge of themselves or if they are letting the other person control them in order to help them take responsibility for how they felt or what they have done. If children can “get it” through these means, how about us adults?

Next Up: Chris Smith, Ph.D. on The Bright Side

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