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Just-world fallacy explains a lot about how parents of children with disruptive behavior disorders get treated

By Anonymous Parent

Do you believe that what goes around comes around? That people reap what they sow? That the world is generally fair? If so, you are probably not the parent of a child like mine.

I am a parent of a son (who is now an adult) who had severe callous-unemotional traits and who met criteria for oppositional defiant disorder when he was younger.  Callous-unemotional traits include a lack of empathy or remorse, an uncaring attitude, and a cold demeanor. My son had all of these traits. He also was spiteful, vindictive, uncooperative, and defiant–all symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder.

I spent my son’s entire childhood trying to help him. My reward was to be treated horribly by my son in return. It was a sad, scary and terribly embarrassing experience that started when he was about 3 years old and continues to this day, although he is now a grown adult.  I usually tried to hide both my child’s condition and his treatment of me from others. When I did choose to reveal aspects of my experiences with my son to my friends or to professionals like teachers or doctors, I was treated very skeptically.  I was variously told, explicitly or implicitly, that:

  1. Because my teenage son wasn’t on drugs and was getting good grades, my assessment that he was not just difficult but seemed to have a true psychological disorder was not reasonable.
  2. If my now-adult son chooses to treat me poorly or to not speak to me at all I must have done something to deserve this. Why else would an adult child choose to estrange themselves from a parent?   

Given my experience with my son, you might think that I would have  heard of the “just-world fallacy” during his childhood. I had not. I first heard of it when he was 36 years old.  But as soon as I read the definition, I knew it applied to my experience, as well as, I am sure, to the experience of many other parents whose children have disruptive behavior disorders like conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and callous-unemotional traits.  

The American Psychological Association defines the just-world fallacy (also known as the just-world hypothesis) as:  “the idea that the world is a fair and orderly place where what happens to people generally is what they deserve. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. This view… results in the belief that the innocent victim of an accident or attack must somehow be responsible for or deserve it.”

When parents who have children with a disruptive behavior disorder are assumed to have either caused or helped cause that disorder or are assumed to be getting what they “deserve” from these difficult children, this is an excellent example of the just-world fallacy brought to life. Expressions such as “what goes around comes around” and “you reap what you sow” really capture the essence of this fallacy.  

The just-world fallacy is the epitome of victim blaming. The large fraction of parents whose children have disruptive behavior disorders are victimized by these children, and we suffer in any situation where the just-world fallacy is taken seriously.  

I’m looking forward to a time when the majority of people believe that the just-world fallacy is just that–a fallacy, and a victim-blaming one at that.

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