Today we’re going to hear from a mom whose daughter blames her for everything from serving dinner to getting a divorce. Feeling blamed is something most parents can relate to, so I’ll walk you through how to think about this and how to respond more effectively when you feel blamed.
My daughter has an eating disorder. She is doing what’s necessary to get into recovery, but the problem is that she blames me for everything. She blames me for the food she needs to eat, she blames me for having to go to therapy. She blames me for divorcing her dad, and she even blames me for having three kids.
I just don’t understand why everything is my fault. I’ve told her it’s not fair to blame me, I keep trying to tell her my side of the story, and I’ve told her how much it hurts me when she blames me, but nothing seems to help. I just can’t help her see that this is not my fault. Do you have any ideas?
Hi Amber, I can imagine how hard this is for you. Most of us who have teenagers have felt blamed. And a daughter who blames you for stuff is sometimes part of being a mom. But combined with the fear I imagine you feel about the eating disorder, I’m sure this feels really awful for you.
So I’d like to make some suggestions.
First, I’d like to talk about our job description as parents. In short, our job as parents is to care for our kids’ physical and emotional safety. In terms of physical safety, we are responsible for keeping them out of danger. And part of this job is feeding kids regular meals and snacks every day. It is not safe to not eat or to eat erratically or in a disordered way.
The second part of our job is to care for our kids’ emotional safety. At the heart of this is feeling seen and understood. Sometimes, including when they have an eating disorder, keeping our kids emotionally safe includes getting them psychological support such as therapy.
So some of the things your child is blaming you for are actually in your job description. You are responsible for feeding her and getting her to therapy. That’s just what you need to do. She can complain about that, and that’s fine. You can hear her complaints without feeling guilty that you’re doing it. It’s your job.
What is “blame”?
I think it’s helpful to think carefully about the word blame. When we say that someone is blaming us it means that we’re feeling guilty. Someone else might hear the exact same words and not feel they are being blamed because they don’t feel guilty. Can you see why? In other words, being blamed is a subjective experience, and when you see it differently, you can respond more effectively.
In the case of feeding your child and taking her to therapy, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Even if she uses an accusatory tone of voice that you could interpret as blaming, you do not need to feel blamed because you feel no guilt for doing these things. They’re your job.
So it can seem to you like your daughter blames mom for everything, but that doesn’t mean that you need to feel blamed or guilty.
How to respond
Typically the best way to respond to a child who is accusing you of doing something that is in your job description is to validate it without defending yourself.
Here’s what this looks like:
She says: you’re so annoying – I can feed myself. You’re always forcing me to eat.
You say: I understand that you are frustrated right now, but it is my responsibility to feed you.
The point is that your daughter gets to be upset about this. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are doing something necessary and important. And you’re showing her that you understand her while still holding the conviction that what you’re doing is the right thing to do.
Complaints are normal
A daughter who blames mom for everything is not unusual. But when we look at blaming as “complaining,” it starts to look different. A teenager complaining is a healthy part of their development as a person – it’s called individuation. The key is that you should not take complaints personally. She gets to have her complaints, and you get to keep doing your job. Both can exist at the same time.
I think you’ll find that when you look at things this way you’ll feel a lot less bad about her complaints because you’ll understand that it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It’s just part of parenting.
So next up are the complaints she has about your divorce and the number of children you have. Here we need to look at a division of you as two separate people.
You, an adult, get to make the decision to marry, stay married or not and have children. And those choices all have an impact on your children, but that does not mean that you made the wrong choice.
In these cases, you can validate her feelings and hold steady in your adult choices without feeling guilty or ashamed of them.
Again, just because she’s complaining about a choice you made does not mean that what you did is wrong. It just means she is complaining, and that’s OK.
How to respond
So here’s how this might go:
She says: this is all your fault. If you hadn’t divorced Dad I would be fine!
You say: I know that our divorce was hard on you, and I’m really sorry about that.
You have validated her experience as a child who experienced the consequences of your adult choices. You’re not accepting blame or feeling guilt, but you are acknowledging that she was impacted by your choices. That’s just a fact.
What you’re not doing here is defending yourself or your adult choices. When you start to defend yourself you are signaling that there is a reason to be defensive. A teenager will lock onto this as an opportunity to debate, and there’s very little to be gained in debating your grown-up choices with her.
Acknowledge how she feels. Spend less time explaining yourself and more time listening to her explain herself.
She needs to know that her feelings matter. And she will feel better if she believes you know and understand that it was hard for her. Stay away from justification or explanation about your choices. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful.
Talk less. Listen more.
Translating words into feelings
And one more thing about this. It’s usually not helpful to say that it hurts you when she says this. While I know that our kids can push all our most sensitive buttons, it’s important that as parents we stay in our caregiving role and don’t make this about us.
I think it helps to translate her words into feelings. Let me show you how this works:
When she says: this is all your fault. If you hadn’t divorced Dad I would be fine!
The translation might be: I feel so bad right now. I don’t know what to do with how bad I feel so I’m going to throw nasty words at you to try and make myself feel better.
When I translate it this way, it feels different, right? Often we get so caught up in the content of what our kids say that we miss the critical skill of translating it.
Think back to when your kid was an infant – before she had language to tell you she was upset. You could translate her behavior like crying and fussing into a need to be held and soothed.
Today she still needs to be held and soothed by you. She’s not always going to be able to say that to you with clear and gentle words – that’s something she will learn to do over time and with maturity.
Part of our role as emotional caregivers is to read our kids and translate words and behavior so we can provide them with the support they crave from us.
What kids want
Our kids want us to read them. They want us to know them. They want us to sense their underlying distress and needs and respond to those emotional needs rather than the particular words they just flung our way.
When we’re in our parenting role, we have to translate what our child needs even when they are saying things that hurt our feelings.
Usually, when a child is constantly blaming and the parent is feeling hurt and helpless, the problem is that the parent isn’t validating the child’s experience and instead is responding defensively. A daughter who blames mom is trying to show mom that she’s in distress and needs help.
How to deal with complaints
So we want to address all complaints in the following way:
First, validate the complaint. Every single complaint can be validated. This means saying something like “I can understand you don’t like it,” or “I can see how upset you are about this” or even just “You don’t like this.”
Second, don’t get defensive. This means: don’t defend yourself or get into a debate about what you’re doing or have done. Don’t get into a lengthy discussion about why you chose to divorce her dad or are serving dinner.
As long as you validate her feelings about the choices, that’s enough. She doesn’t have to understand or agree with the reason for your choices to feel validated, heard, and understood.
And that’s ultimately what all of our kids want from us. They want to feel heard and understood. They want to feel as if they make sense. As if we “get” them.
Amber, I know this sounds simple but it’s not easy. It’s so hard to feel as if your daughter blames mom for everything. Please consider how you can use validation and non-defensiveness when your daughter complains. It may take some time, even a few months of practicing this before you see the incredible power of this technique. But I promise you that it is transformative and will deepen your connection to your daughter and make life much easier for both of you.
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