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In the Face of Blame

February 26, 2017

I received an interesting question in response to my blog about sending parents first for counseling. I would like to respond. First, here is the question:

Well said, thank you greatly for your wisdom. I work in co-occurring disorders. I frequently hear from clients that “bad parenting or lack of parenting” as the reason or excuse for substance abuse and maladaptive behavior and thinking, along with mental health issues, and unhealthy interpersonal relationships …(“Its not my fault, if only I had this and that as a child then I wouldn’t have these problems.”) What are your thoughts?


It is not uncommon to hear the refrain that essentially states, I am not responsible for myself, my problems are someone elses fault, most notably my parents.

This is not an uncommon refrain. Truth is, the person may be right.

We now know that underneath many substance disorders as well as many mental health disorders is a history of trauma. The most common place for being exposed to trauma is in one’s own home. There is a substantial piece of research to even back that up. Indeed, some trauma is transgenerational although not all trauma falls at the feet of one’s family. Some trauma is institutional, some by social structures and some by situations truly at the hands of life itself.

There is the the ACEs study. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and the study demonstrates the greater the number of those adverse experiences particularly from one’s family, the greater the likelihood of not only addiction and mental health disorders but of a multitude of physical disorder too. The study is very robust and an interesting and easy read for anyone. I certainly recommend it for addiction and mental health professionals. Clients may also benefit from reading it.

With children we work with the parents because we seek to address the conditions that may have lead to their challenges. If however, the challenge is as a result of genetics or biology, we still want to work with the parents to help them cope and adapt to their child’s unique needs.

Once that child is an adult presenting with addictions, mental health or other life challenges, to the extent possible, we still want to work with the family to address the conditions that lead to the problems.

However, come adulthood people are then in a position to take responsibility for themselves and despite the cause of their issues, can look at how they can take charge of their life to any degree possible.

The adult is typically emancipated and seeks to live independent of their family of origin despite there often being some emotional and perhaps economic ties. We seek to help the adult develop the skills for independent living, part of which includes at times examining their life to then learn more productive ways of coping with the adversity that had befallen them.

When the person laments, its not my fault and blames the parents, we can actually join with them in agreement. We can help them grieve the life they didn’t have. Then it is our job as the counselor or therapist to promote the challenge: Then how or what do you need to overcome those earlier life circumstances?

Empathy is a powerful tool in this exchange between the client and therapist, but the challenge to the therapist is to not be inducted into the fatalistic view of the client so to still be able to offer a way out. So rather than getting hooked on blame, we can use the past to explain and then offer the supports and skill development to change life’s trajectory now in adulthood. We can challenge our clients to consider, so what would you change for yourself on a go-forward basis? At times, that first step is minuscule, yet should be celebratory.

These are the challenges to the counselor or therapist. We are there to help often against a background of dread, fear, loathing, pain and anguish.

Truth is  we are helpful to very many people in such circumstances, but we are not helpful to everyone.

Much like when people see their oncologist. Some will live and for some, the cancer will consume them. We help some but not all. We too must live with that reality.

So don’t get dissuaded or discouraged by the client who laments a view that they have no control or agency over themselves the result of their upbringing. That is but the opening note of the next song that has yet to be written. To whatever degree possible, we help people move past blame to take as much control of their lives as possible.

If the task is overwhelming, seek support for yourself to cope with treatment challenges or failure. That too will happen, but let’s not let it undermine our resolve to help who we can.

We enjoy our successes. We learn from challenges lost.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

  1. I love your reply. I have a similar take.

    My youngest brother was always at loggerheads with my father. Some 15 years ago at age 26, he was grumbling to me and our common sibling about our father having nudged him into a career which he did not like, and which he felt had shaped him and restricted. My other brother and I cast incredulous looks at each other, and then, in sync, turned and told him, “If you dislike what you are doing, what are you doing to change it? Its one thing to blame Dad when you were 17 and he was paying for your education. But since then you have been earning, and could pay to do additional courses if you were so inclined.”

    Every one of us faces some challenge or the other that restricts us in some direction. Life is about making an attempt to overcome that challenge.

  2. There is a powerful saying in DBT: ‘we didn’t cause our problems, but we still have to solve them’.

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