I Didn’t Do It!


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 161 · Duration: 00:19:38

I Didn’t Do It!

What do you do when your kids won’t own up to a problem and you don’t know whom to hold responsible?

Today we’re hearing from Mariposa of Stockton, CA. Mariposa writes:

I Didn’t Do It!We have two sons, 12 and 14. We've always the problem of things being broken/eaten/missing, and neither kid taking responsibility for it. We’re using the method you outline in your book and on our list of behavioral expectations, we included "taking responsibility when you do something and cleaning/repairing/putting it back." Since we cannot have proof of who did it when we didn't see it happen, how do we ever enforce this? That is, the kid who didn't do it and the kid who did are in the same boat, since we don't know which is which. How do we avoid holding both kids responsible for the damage?

Thanks for your question. It's a dilemma many parents face, so thanks for asking it. I appreciate you putting focus on the value of taking responsibility for your sons. It’s a form of honesty and it grows integrity. It’s exactly the right thing to want for your young men. It doesn’t sound like it’s quite there with them, so let’s see what might be getting in the way and what we might do to change it.

I do want to answer your question of avoiding holding both kids accountable. There’s nothing wrong with holding both kids accountable since they both know who did the misdeed and neither is owning up or coming forward with the truth. But let’s go a bit deeper here.

The Underlying Control Battle

You have a positive strategy for dealing with these accidents or misdeeds, simply own up and fix the problem; no horrible punishments so it’s curious as to why they haven’t simply come along and cooperated with you. It’s as if they’re avoiding a punishment, which as you describe it, there is no punishment, simply owning up and addressing the problem.

I am curious about why they seem to be aligned as kids against parents; why doesn’t the one who didn’t do the deed simply clarify that it was in fact their sibling?
No doubt not wanting to be a tattle tail or rat their brother out would be part of it, but with a positive parenting plan like yours, you’d think they would value honesty and simply want to end the drama.

And just to be clear, telling on one’s sibling is not squealing or tattle-tailing. Running to parents with everything a sibling does wrong is tattling, but if there is a problem that needs resolution and parents want to know something that a kid knows the answer to, they should cooperate rather than support the unwillingness of their sibling to take responsibility. That’s in the best interest of their sibling, and it’s part of trusting that parents will do the right thing about the accident or misdeed.

Running to parents with everything a sibling does wrong is tattling. But if there is a problem that needs resolution, they should cooperate rather than support the unwillingness of their sibling to take responsibility.Click To Tweet

Now, what can we do about your situation? Since your approach seems healthy, let’s look at the delivery; the tone of voice that you’re using when there is a problem and the attitude towards the offense or the offender you are communicating. It’s as American as apple pie, right? When kids do something wrong, they’re "in trouble." And no one wants to be "in trouble," even if your approach is simply to right the wrong or fix the problem. We’ll often communicate it with a tone of "you did something wrong" and kids will want to avoid that sense of being in the emotional dog house.

Since this has been going on for a while, it’s undoubtedly a pattern where one of them does something wrong, and they both avoid being forthcoming about it and you get frustrated and talk about taking responsibility and, you guessed it, I’ll call that a Control Battle.

Making Your Strategy Work

So, why does this kind of thing happen, where forward-thinking positive parents like yourself end up communicating a negative message when that’s not your intent. Sometimes we’re out of emotional resources. We’re just burned out and we can be negative when we still have to deal with stuff and that’s common.
But if it’s a chronic situation, the answer may be here.

It’s common for many of us that when we were kids, we often "got in trouble" or we were raised with a tone of "you’re in trouble," when we did anything wrong. So how did we handle it? We avoided getting in trouble in a number of ways; act like we don’t care, try to be perfect and avoid risks, hideout, even like your kids, deny, yet in every case, there’s a feeling of unworthiness that comes with the tone or even the fear of the tone. Sometimes, it isn’t just the tone; it’s a painful emotional or physical punishment.

This childhood and adolescent experience cause internalization of unworthiness, or we could call it shame or self-esteem injury. Unless we are aware of it and do some healing with it, it will impact how we see ourselves and others. It can show up in our parenting as a negative point of view towards our mistakes and our children’s mistakes. We could, for instance, see and respond to a mistake our kids make as much worse than it is. We can lose our healthy vision that childhood and adolescent errors are expected and we can deal with them compassionately, positively, and with accountability. We can easily fall back into a "you’re in trouble" tone, even if the method of accountability is benign.

So, what to do? Here’s a way you can shift the tone, and the pattern and hit restart for yourself.

Mariposa, start with being aware of your own feelings of unworthiness, never good enough, of self-esteem injury that can feel like there’s a chronic "in trouble" or "I’ve done something wrong" feeling, and flip it to "I’m worthy and do and have done many wonderful things. I’m a terrific person and deserve to feel good about myself and deserve to feel good about my kids, challenging at times though they might be."

Easy, right? Of course not, but if you work at it every day, you’ll be amazed at the difference that alone will make in your life.

Next, worry less about if minor things do or don’t get resolved. The big picture is teaching taking responsibility to your young men. Here’s an approach with them that might work: I’m going to role-play a situation and conversation you might have with your kids and then we can pull it apart and see what I’m trying to accomplish.

Mariposa, since you have a Latina name, I’ll give your sons Latino names.

Mariposa: Juan and Pablito, since neither of you is taking any responsibility for the broken vase, I need to have an important conversation with you. Somehow I’ve neglected to teach you the importance of taking responsibility for your actions. I’m really sorry for letting you down in that way because taking responsibility is such a critical value. It affects trust and how others will see you, whether others will judge you as trustworthy and of good character or not. It will affect whether you grow from your mistakes and feel good about yourselves or hide and deny you’re your mistakes and never feel entirely good about yourselves. And I want you both to feel really good about yourselves. Do you have any ideas about how Dad and I made it seem bad to admit to a mistake, an accident, or having done something wrong?

Juan: We just don’t like being in trouble.

Mom: Thanks for letting me know, because when you do something wrong, either an accident or being forgetful or making a bad decision, in our minds, you’re not in trouble. It’s just something to deal with, to learn and grow from. Sure, you have to fix the problem, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad, and it doesn’t mean we’re angry, and it doesn’t mean you’re in trouble, it just means there’s a problem to be fixed and a lesson to be learned.

Pablito: It doesn’t feel that way, it feels like we’re bad.

Mom: I’m hearing that and I care about that. Thanks for telling me because your feelings are important to us. When I was a kid, when there was a problem, someone got spanked or yelled at, and that felt horrible and scary. It made all of us feel like we were never really good enough. And we never want you kids to feel that way. Do you have any ideas to make it easier and more positive to take responsibility?

Juan and Pablito: Just don’t sound so mean, like we did something on purpose.

Mom: I can definitely work on that. Can you work on telling me the truth and taking responsibility? I’ll tell you what, if whenever you take responsibility right away when asked, I’ll give you a hug and help you resolve the problem if I can.

Both kids: That sounds good.

Mom: Now for the big test for all of us: How did the vase get broken?

Pablito: We were fooling around throwing the slime and I fell into the vase.

Mom: I’m really proud of you for telling me right away. Juan do think you have any responsibility in it?

Juan: Not really, I didn’t knock it over, but we were fooling around together.

Mom: Excellent Juan, right you are. You know that throwing things around in the living room is against the rules and so you did have a responsibility, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I’m so proud of both of you for stepping up and owning up to it. How much do you guys think the vase cost?

Juan: We don’t know, maybe $50.

Mom: I don’t know exactly, it was a gift from Aunt Julia. Tell you what, why don’t you each contribute $5 dollars and we’ll go out tomorrow after school and buy a new vase together and get some ice cream to celebrate our new better way of dealing with problems.

Mariposa, do you get the idea? You really want your kids to grow up learning to take responsibility and the way we can accomplish that is to make it a positive experience for them. If you’re in a cycle of struggling to get them to take responsibility, the way out is to start by taking responsibility for the problem, and then making it a positive experience for them. Make sense? In the process of helping your kids feel good about themselves, even when they make a mistake, you’re helping you feel good and healing the negative messaging from your childhood. Good job.

You really want your kids to grow up learning to take responsibility. The way we can accomplish that is to make it a positive experience for them.Click To Tweet

So parents, Moms, Dads, and professionals who work with families, it’s so easy to overlook the message our tone sends and think only about the words or our intentions. Sometimes we’ll have a negative tone simply because we’re out of emotional bandwidth, and these days particular, that’s understandable. But also, the negative messaging we received as children and teenagers can significantly influence how we see and respond to the problems our kids present. Becoming conscious of tone and the message it sends can profoundly improve parent-child and parent-teen relationships as well as offer us an opportunity to feel better about ourselves, our families, and our lives.

A special thanks to Mariposa for her valuable question.

If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website neildbrown.com and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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