When your foster kid plays the martyr

Recently, I read a foster dad’s blog entry about his children playing the martyr, turning a small situation into a much bigger “woe is me” situation. He gave an example of when he told one his sons to share his breadsticks with his brother. The boy promptly gave all the breadsticks to his brother and then complained about how horrible it was that he had no breadsticks for himself. I started writing a comment in Word, but then silly me, I can’t find the blog anymore. If you’re out there, send me a message! Any way, here are my thoughts on this martyr behavior.

“Is there enough for me?” “No one really loves me.” “Life always takes away everything that matters to me.” “Bad things always happen to me, because I’m a bad person.” These are some of the inner thoughts of someone who plays the martyr.

A small loss touches memories of a previous huge loss, and sparks these nasty thoughts which feel so intolerable. Being told to share a bread stick with your brother is no longer about being kind towards your sibling. It’s about fear that you will not get what you need and you’re powerless to do anything about it. So what do you do? If you can’t win this game, you might as well not even play. Might as well give all the bread sticks to your brother.


There are many ways to be traumatized in life, but there are only four possible responses: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Everyone understands fighting – think tantrums or yelling. Flight, also sometimes called flee, is running away – think hiding behind the sofa. Freeze can look like zoning out, inability to act, or not talking.

Submitting is the one that usually gets ignored, because often times submitting is socially acceptable. A submitting response is essentially “I will just do what you say.” What’s wrong with this attitude? There are times when a person ought to stand up for themselves. For example, if a teenager is engaging in promiscuous sex, this could be a negative form of submitting – “they can’t force me to have sex if I say yes.” Teens need to stand up to peer pressure to avoid underage drinking and drugs, too. What about domestic abuse once they are grown up? They need to be able to say no to an abusive partner, and leave that relationship.


So back to the martyr syndrome. Children who act like they can never get what they need probably FEEL like they can’t get what they need. These children then take control by not needing that thing or by denying themselves to such an extreme that we, the authority figures, will realize that we should be providing something critical to their existence, repent of our ‘bad behavior’ and give them what they “need.”

We see this martyring behavior in our house, too. What I try to do is listen for that existential need and address that need rather than focus too much on the surface behavior.

Child says: “What? I have to go to bed 10 minutes early for misbehaving? Fine. I’ll go to bed three hours early.”
What I hear: “I’m afraid you don’t love me anymore because I misbehaved.”
What I do: Give a hug. Say I will always love them and tell them they are a good person. I tell them I am confident they will follow the rules better in the future, since I know they are a good person. I give the option to just go to bed 10 minutes early or three hours early, giving them some control in the situation.

Child says: “If I have to take turns playing video games, then I won’t ever play video games again. I will be bored for the rest of my life.”
What I hear: “I’m afraid you love that other child more than me.”
What I do: Say that I love them very much. Say that I love their brother/sister very much, too, and that’s ok because I have enough love for both of them. Say that I understand they are feeling upset. Let them know that if they change their minds and want to play video games again, they can do that, but must take turns.

Do you see this behavior in your household? How do you handle it?

One thought on “When your foster kid plays the martyr

  1. As soon as I read about the child giving all the breadsticks, I thought of my son who is autistic/has Asperger’s. My son is all or nothing. He doesn’t process in-between or gray areas. So when I say “Please turn the TV down, it is too loud,” he turns the sound all the way down to mute. After all I said to turn the TV down and that is exactly what he did. So I have to say things like, “Please turn the TV down two notches/stripes/clicks (depending on the TV). That he understands. It is the same way with a lot of things. “Can you give your brother a car to play with?” and he gives him all the cars. So I have to say “can you give him five cars and five for you?” As a teen, he is learning slowly to adjust to “our” way of thinking, but it is a process. It often leads to angry situations as well with “here just take all of them” and then we have to backtrack so he understands better.


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