4 Ways Kids Avoid Taking Responsibility

-And What to do About it- SEL Techniques

4 Ways Kids Avoid Taking Responsibility- SEL Techniques

When a child makes a bad choice, how often do you hear, “Yes, I did it. I’m sorry. I see why that was not a good choice. I won’t do it again.”

I bet if your child took responsibility so calmly and completely you’d fall over in shock. More likely your child employs one of these 4 common methods of avoiding responsibility- Deflecting, Wallowing, Dramatizing, or Minimizing. Being on the receiving end of any of these responsibility avoidance methods is downright unpleasant for a parent or teacher. See which way your child avoids taking responsibility and get some tips on how to teach them to accept responsibility instead.

1. Deflecting Attention

One of the most common ways kids try to avoid taking responsibility is by distracting you with some other concern. They may try to get you to focus on someone else's mistake instead of their own. Sometimes you'll be their target, and they'll accuse you of some act of bad parenting or supposed irresponsibility that will get you focused on defending yourself instead of paying attention to what they did. It's not necessarily intentionally manipulative. It's mostly self-preservation because facing one's mistakes can be upsetting. What's important is that they learn something so they can be more responsible next time.

Child Deflecting Attention

Child: *Caught in the act. Points at friend.*
"Well he did this other bad thing!"

Child: *Caught in the act. Points at mom.*
"Well you did something to me yesterday that I think you should feel bad about!

What to Do for Deflecting

Adult: We’re not talking about him/her/me right now. We’re talking about you. This is a choice you made, and so you need to take responsibility for the consequences. It’s ok to make mistakes. But you don’t want to make the same one twice, right? Let’s look at what we can learn from this situation.

2. Wallowing in Self-pity

Another common way kids avoid taking responsibilty is by turning the moment into a pity party. If you feel bad that they are upset or being self-defeating, you're likely to focus on making them feel better rather than making them take responsibility for the mistake. It's reasonable to feel upset when you face a mistake, that's remorse and it's an emotion that will help the child remember not to make the mistake next time. But allowing the emotion to dominate without learning the lesson, that's a wasted opportunity. And developing a habit of overinflating the personal impact of an event is not a healthy way of dealing with emotions in the long term.

Child Wallowing

Child: *Caught in the act. Starts crying or otherwise looking pitiful*
"I hate myself. I never do anything right."

What to Do for Wallowing

Adult: "This one moment is just one thing. Let's avoid "always" and "never" statements. Right now, in this moment, you're learning something so you can grow from it. Everyone makes mistakes and we may feel bad about it for a little while. But once we face what we've done and see what we should do differently next time, we can move on from feeling bad. So let's figure out what happened and what you could do differently.

3. Pump up the Drama

This way of avoiding taking responsibility is similar to deflecting, but it's way more emotionally charged. Children will turn their feelings of guilt/shame/remorse into an attack in order to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with facing consequences. Again, guilt, shame, and remorse are all a natural part of learning about how to behave. Feeling these emotions, learning what they are trying to teach you, and then moving on is healthy part of learning to be a responsible person who makes choices they can live with.

Child Using Drama to Distract

Child: *Caught in the act. Starts yelling, eye rolling, putting on a dramatic show of their angst.*
"You so don’t get me. You are always picking on me. You just don’t understand."

What to Do for Drama

Adult: I hear what you are saying. If you want to talk about that issue after this one, I’m happy to do it. Right now, we’re going to talk about this situation. Once you take responsibility for your part in it, and learn how to do it differently next time, we can move on to other topics.

4. Minimizing the Wrong and Trying to Gain Control

This method of avoiding responsibility is two-fold. First, they are trying to make the mistake smaller, to make you think you are making a big deal out of nothing. Second, they are trying to take control, or gain more power in the situation. It's important to remember that you are the grown-up and you have the child's best interest at heart. It's your job to help them learn to take responsibility for their actions. Avoiding power plays and staying focused on the mistake of the moment is the way to handle this.

Child Minimizing

Child: *Caught in the act. Takes on dismissive posture and tries to end the conversation.*
"Why are you making such a big deal of this? Ok. I get it. Can you please stop talking now?"

What to Do for Minimizing

Adult: “I will stop talking when I know you’ve understood what I’ve been saying. Please tell me (respectfully) why I think this is a big deal and what you are going to do next time, and I’ll gladly let it go.”

More Resources on Responsibility

Colleen Doyle Bryant

Author of social emotional learning books and teaching materials including Talking with Trees series for children and Truth Be Told Quotes for teens.