I grew up with a mother who constantly played the victim. When I had something that was difficult for me, she would place the attention on herself and talk all about how it made her feel that I struggled with something. When I embarassed myself publicly she would tell me how humiliated she was and would yell at me about what people would think of her now. If I so much as got the wrong brand of bread while out shopping, I would be called ‘stupid’ and then told that I was being ridiculous and a liar to be feigning upset about that – and was I trying to make her out to be a monster?
In a more holistic sense, having a parent who played the victim habitually meant that us children were not free to discuss things with her. We were not able to be heard about things we felt or wanted or were upset about, because we were told (directly and indirectly) that it wasn’t our feelings and needs that mattered. If something made us scared or uncomfortable, we knew we could not bring it up. When we had something that was bothering us, or that ended up affecting us so strongly that it would come out in other ways (such as in behaviour, school work, relationships with food, body image, ability to cope with normal life, and/or anxiety) – we knew that there was not only no point in bringing it up, but that it would also be problematic to do so. We would be told that we didn’t care about how our parent was feeling, and that we were awful people for centring ourselves again. Of course this was ironic as it was not us who was deliberately silencing others to hog the attention – but as a vulnerable child I didn’t think I had any right to have my feelings considered.
It took me until I was in my 20’s to realise what was going on. Until then I had run around trying to not upset her, and my siblings and father did this too. It took a lot of effort and brain space! The whole family believed we were selfish and that we needed to protect her! When I did eventually speak up, my family tried to shush me and told me I was ‘upsetting mum’. My mum cried to anyone who would listen that I had ‘mental problems’, had ‘no empathy’ (as I am autistic), and was ‘concocting fake memories’. But, I didn’t care any more. I had had enough of being told I was the bad guy for no reason at all. I had had enough of fanning her on her pedestal of victimhood. While I am sure it was habit by then, and probably some kind of defence mechanism from her own childhood, it didn’t make it any less damaging for the children she raised in this way.
Perhaps it is because of my upbringing and personal experience with this tactic, but I frequently notice parents online who act like my mum. I notice them often. I am active in alternative parenting spaces and there are people who pretend to reach out for help with parenting, but who really just want to collate more things with which to play victim to their children. While I do not necessarily believe that these situations are abusive (as mine was with my own mother), they certainly are indications of someone not willing to do introspective work because they have chosen instead to blame others. Playing the victim can be an easy way to avoid thinking about your mistakes because you can convince yourself that others are to blame. This is toxic in parenting as our kids rely on us and we need to be bettering ourselves to parent them well.
I want to give two examples of this.
The first example was in a large Radical Unschooling group. Someone was upset that their teenaged son wanted a lot of birthday gifts. The parent wanted the family to be minimalist and was scared that the child didn’t care about anyone but themselves, had no empathy, and didn’t care that consumerism would destroy the Earth. A few people took time out of their day to explain some of the ways that these beliefs/fears conflicted with unschooling. I was one of them. In response to each person who had offered some ideas to this person, the parent would reply that we “didn’t understand”, were “aggressive”, or that we were making “accusations” and “assumptions”. The parent did not genuinely wish to hear advice at all, but seemed to want to feel more victimised, or perhaps wanted to have only positive back-patting to add to the victim narrative.
As I read more and more of the comments and the replies from the parent involved, I saw my mother more and more. I saw that this person deliberately was playing the victim. When this person would say things like they “had no idea” why their child was so “obsessed” with “things” and that they had a “wonderful relationship” – I thought differently and I wondered whether there was more to this story. I think that when you have a parent who is regularly blaming you and playing the victim as you learn and grow, you will not be developing in the most healthy of ways. In this case, I felt that it was obvious there was something about the parent that was causing the family difficulties. It was not the fault of the teenager, it was not some other thing’s fault. It was a problem with the way this person interacts with other people – including their children.
Everyone has thoughts that are not completely positive I think, when they are parenting. But the very idea that you would firstly, blame your children for things like basic wants and needs, secondly write it out somewhere for thousands of people to read and still feel justified in blaming your child, and thirdly deflect all advice on purpose and further blame people – this stuff is not your usual “I had a bad day” story that all parents can relate to.
The next example was also a parent of a teenager. This parent was angry because they had made a rule that prohibited the teenager from cooking or preparing foods without the express permission of the parent. Then there was an example given of the child baking in the night without getting permission. It was stated that this child was extemely selfish and didn’t care about anyone but themselves. The rules were apparently very reasonable, and as with the first story, the parent was blaming the child and not willing to think about why any of this might be going on. Perhaps it was silly of me, but I took the time to write a reply. I won’t be giving any prizes to anyone who can guess the outcome of my reply! The parent ranted at me, telling me their rules were reasonable, and many other things which were indicative that this person had not wanted advice at all (despite asking for it in a group with thousands of members). The parent continued playing the victim to the big, bad, selfish teenager, and deflected all ideas that people had for how to help the family run smoother. It was very clear to me that, if an adult cannot reply to a question without the question-asker turning it all around and making themselves out to be the victim of your answer – a teenager probably cannot do this either, when the person is their parent. Again, no prizes for guessing why this particular family is having problems! (Hint: It probably isn’t the teenager’s selfishness.)
The reason I decided to write about this, is because I think there is (like many things) a continuum of this kind of behaviour. Many people could be doing this without realising. Perhaps it is a habit. Perhaps your own parent did it and you are unintentionally doing this to your own children too. Perhaps you feel victimised by your children constantly and you would like to not feel this way anymore. Another important thing; is that our culture supports this habit. It tells us through childism that children are bad news. So, whether you are doing it on purpose or not, any ways of parenting that involves punishing children or making out like they are inherently bad – is playing into this too.
Whatever you can take from this post, I hope it is helpful. We are not victims of our children. They depend on us. We might have bad days and we might struggle sometimes, but this does not mean our children are to blame. We are not perpetual victims of our kids, and this way of thinking is toxic and can destroy families. It gets in the way of connection, trust, discussion, and healthy growth and development.
In the disability world, this way of thinking is enabled even more by an ableist culture that frames the disabled as burdens upon their carers – who are seen as innocent victims in the hand they have been dealt by Fate. Combined with childism, this is particularly awful. The examples I gave were not examples of disabled children being framed this way, but they were examples of parents playing the victim when they are actually the ones with power over their chidren. It is far more likely that children are the victims of their parents’ habits and wants and moods, rather than the other way around. If you are beginning to think about how this may be playing a part in your own family’s function (or dysfunction), I wish you luck in unravelling it all. I wish you peace and connected relationships into your future.