Help Children Avoid the Victim Trap

Although there are things in life that are out of our control, it is how we perceive them that is critical. This understanding is not new; it’s just not common. Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus (55-135) proposed that we are disturbed not by events but by the views we take of them. In other words, it is not the event itself that is the problem; it is our perception of the event that creates our suffering. Is it a problem or a challenge? “Victimhood thinking” is a perception and the opposite of choice-response thinking.

Besides creating unhappiness, victimhood thinking is also counterproductive to developing responsibility. A cartoon shows a young boy explaining his report card to his parents, as he says, “No use debating environment versus genetic causes. Either way, it’s your fault.” People stuck in the victim trap do not perceive themselves as being in control of their lives and often see the world as unfair to them. Their focus is on the event, rather than on their reaction to the event. They perceive that whatever occurs happens to them, as if they are not responsible for their responses. These people are often angry. They cannot allow themselves to be happy because doing so would challenge their perceptions of themselves as victims. Much antisocial behavior by young people is the result of feeling powerless and without choices in life—of feeling like a victim.

Too often, irresponsible behavior is viewed as a “condition” and results in parents’ excusing young people’s irresponsible choices. Thus viewed through the prism of “special handicaps,” these youngsters are often not held accountable for choosing their behavior. This approach does them a disservice. Growing into adulthood claiming, “I couldn’t help it” or “I have ADD” will not satisfy law enforcement or society’s expectations. All young people need to learn that they have the freedom to choose their responses and that they are accountable for their choices.

Research on the value of choice is solid. The chemicals that our brains generate when we feel optimistic and in control are different from those created when we feel pessimistic and without control. Therefore, teaching young people that they always have a choice and need not be victims is truly one of the most valuable insights parents can share.