Are Parents to Blame?

Are Parents to Blame?

If you are a mom or a dad, have you ever wondered whether you have any influence over your children? Chances are that thought has, indeed, crossed your mind, especially if your child has passed the age of puberty. If that’s true, take comfort; you’re definitely not alone. This article is based on the assumption that parents do influence their children’s lives, even though children’s innate personality traits play an equally influential role in their development.

The mid-1990s saw a dramatic increase in teen violence in America … see the graph in the link:

Over the following years, the increase in violent deaths gave rise to passionate discussions about addressing this disturbing problem. One approach that generated a good deal of controversy was that we ought to consider whether parents should accept responsibility for their kids’ misdeeds. That question is examined in an article published by the American Psychological Association. Here is the link:

The article asserts that no conclusive evidence exists to prove that punishing parents for children’s crimes would reduce criminal behavior by teens. It seems the problem may be too complicated to be successfully addressed legally. And yet the fact remains in all too many families and cultures, that violence and criminal behavior are a way of life; and that way of life is passed down through the generations.

On a separate issue, but on the same theme … Should parents be held responsible when their children consistently fail at school?

For many years we have heard reports about the poor school performance of American children, compared to that of students from other countries. See this link to a 2012 Huffington Post article on the subject:
The article reports just one of the disappointing reports the U.S. educational system has been earning for many years.

Within certain areas and populations, the high school drop-out rate is unacceptably high: as much as fifty percent. Even if it’s true that not all drop-outs leave school for the same reasons, should parents be held to account, if for example, half of their children drop out of school? A June 2011 article from Psychology Today magazine offers some fascinating thoughts on parental responsibility for children’s academic work. Here’s the link:

To be clear, I don’t take sides in any of these arguments. My only aim is to provide food for thought.

Thus far you’ve read about these discussions as they were undertaken on a national level. Now, let’s look at them up-close and personal.

I’d like to share some observations from my work in small town Indiana, about an hour from Chicago. In addition to my private practice, I have, since 2002, served as staff therapist, clinical supervisor and co-creator and director of the parent-training program at a residential treatment center for troubled teens. Having observed hundreds of kids and families of diverse backgrounds, I am thoroughly convinced that kid problems do not exist in a vacuum. I believe that a kid problem is a family problem. Nearly every week in our treatment planning, staffing meetings and therapy sessions, some issue pops up which illustrates this truism. In other words, in nearly every case I’ve worked on or observed, the parents are part of the problem; and in some cases the parents are the problem.

Are there exceptions? Of course. I have worked with a teen who was adopted at age four, after having been passed from one foster home to another, due to her out-of-control behavior. The parents were upper middle class people of strong character and integrity, who genuinely did their best; sadly, the child was emotionally damaged by the time they took her in, and even their wonderful family could not influence her to make smart and healthy choices or to accept help. In this case their behavior did not contribute strongly to the girl’s failure in treatment. But these kinds of situations are few and far between.

One of the teachers in my Master’s degree program made a statement that, at first, I found hard to believe: eighty percent of cases we would encounter would include some element of substance abuse or sexual abuse! I later found this to be all too true.

In most cases the parents are either disengaged, or overly engaged. Their parenting style is rigid or chaotic. Their family is too closed or far too open. They are nearly always dysfunctional, themselves. I’ve heard one mother say, “I don’t care what my daughter does, as long as she doesn’t give me any trouble.” Another mom came to one of our treatment planning meetings, looking as though she hadn’t had a meal in weeks, although she was wearing plenty of makeup and jewelry. She was sporting a pair of golden hoop bracelets on her wrists, which she adjusted regularly and noisily, because her wrists were so thin she was at risk of being hoopless at any moment. She was clearly anorexic. Another mom showed up to a staffing meeting wearing hot pants – and she was about a generation too old to make them look good. In another case I called a dad to tell him that his daughter had been returned safely to our facility, after she’d run away. He was drunk. Here’s a fun example: during a family therapy session, which included our resident teen, three of her siblings, and mom, the mom screamed at me because she said I’d left out a major element in treating her daughter. The kids started giggling, all except my client, who was visibly embarrassed. Interestingly, this daughter, who had been in our care for about 8 months, and who previously, in her mother’s care, had been acting very badly, using drugs and alcohol, defying her bipolar mother … never acted badly during treatment; she earned high grades in school, and was a delight to work with. The mother later withdrew her daughter from treatment against our recommendation. Beyond our aftercare follow-up reports, I can only wonder what happened to her.

In all my experience, I can name five kids in our program who came from intact biological families – not adopted, no divorce, no abandonment, no stepfamily or blended family issues; just your plain old garden-variety biological family: a mom, a dad and their biological children. Five examples, out of hundreds. It is well known that broken families contribute to bad behavior and decreased school performance in children. Shouldn’t parents of broken families bear some responsibility for creating a home environment in which kids are less likely to succeed?

But … are the parents always responsible? Not always ‘one hundred percent’ responsible, to be fair; but sometimes … yes, one hundred percent. On the other hand, is it possible that some kids are just plain bad? Sure, it’s possible. But in my experience and in the experience of my colleagues, that kid is rare. Is it possible that some kids are born with an organic defect or disease that accounts for destructive behavior or lack of empathy and conscience? Of course that can be true. Again, those instances are in the minority.

If you’re a parent, I hope this information gives you something useful to think about. Except in cases of abuse or neglect, I don’t believe any parent is entirely responsible for everything – right or wrong – about their kids. The current wisdom indicates that nature and nurture are equally influential to a child’s development.

If there’s anything to be learned, maybe it’s this: a parent should accurately identify what he or she might be responsible for; what, if anything, needs to change, about oneself or about one’s parenting style; what adjustments should be made as the child grows.

Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than can be addressed in a short article. Resources for parents are abundant and easy to find. If you’d like help in that area, please don’t hesitate to contact me at (219) 464-1234 or e mail me at

Be well, and accentuate the positive!

Bob Kallus, MS, LMFT