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From Victimhood to Empowerment

“I can’t do this!”

“My teacher hates me!”

“I never get what I want.”

“You always punish me for every little thing!”

Do these lines sound familiar? Most probably you’ve heard similar complaints from your children at some point. A victimhood mentality is easily adopted and hard to dispel, so it’s no wonder that children often view challenging situations from a rigidly negative perspective. Our challenge is to help them accept that there are alternate narratives; they can choose to view tough situations through a different pair of glasses.

Injustice and pain are part of life, so it is inevitable that our children will encounter situations that are hurtful. As my father used to frequently tell us children, “Life isn’t fair”. There is nothing we can do to ensure our children have easy lives, but there is plenty we can do to help them use their challenges as vehicles of growth.

In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, Victor Frankl observed that those who had lost their freedom, families, homes, fortunes, health, and self-determination, had not lost the most crucial freedom, the ability to choose their perspective. As he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” 

Whether you call it resilience, grit, or personal empowerment, we understand that the ability to choose the way we view our hardships is key to overcoming them. Of all the lessons we wish to teach our children, this one is fundamental. Yet how can parents teach this lesson to their children?

The answer lies in the story of Yosef HaTzadik (Joseph). Yosef was abducted and sold by his brothers and sent to a foreign land where he was enslaved. He was unjustly framed by Mrs. Potiphar and sentenced to prison where he remained for thirteen years. In total, he lost twenty-two years of his father’s care and teachings. Without a doubt, the trajectory of Yosef’s life was severely diverted by his brother’s actions. More than anyone else, Yosef could have lived his life as a victim. He could have wallowed in despair about what he had lost and he could have stewed in revenge and hatred for those who had stolen his idyllic life.

But Yosef chose a different path. Yosef couldn’t change the reality of his life, but he could and did change the narrative surrounding it. Yosef chose to believe that no power could impact his life unless Hashem (God) willed it. Yosef adopted a worldview wherein people are unable to subvert Hashem’s plans. Anything that happened to him was solely the result of Hashem’s determination. This perspective allowed him to flourish in every situation whether it was a prison or the palace.

While Yosef’s framework was one of faith and self-determination, his brothers floundered in guilt for years. Repeatedly, Yosef shared his conviction with them that the events of the past were part of a master plan.

And God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here: for God did send me before you to preserve life…So now it was not you that sent me here, but God: and He has made me a father to Par῾o, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Miżrayim.” Braishis (Genesis) 45:5-8

Yosef tried his hardest to change the brothers’ perspective, but such change is very slow. In Parshas Vayechi the brothers were still operating in their old framework.

 And when Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, What if Yosef will hate us, and will pay us back the evil which we did to him? Braishis 50:15

Once more Yosef presented an alternate view.

Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it to pass at this day that much people should be saved alive. Now therefore fear not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them.  Braishis 50:19-21

It takes great effort and much repetition to change a mindset. It's a slow process and isn’t accomplished overnight. Jewish wisdom teaches that the Torah never wastes a word. If the Torah repeats Yosef’s attempts to open up a new viewpoint for his brothers, it’s because we need to learn how difficult it is to adapt a new perspective. This isn’t a lesson we learn or teach once, we have to work on it repeatedly.

As parents we need tremendous persistence and patience in helping our children shift their framework. We must know that we will repeat ourselves many, many times in our attempts to broaden their view of a situation. When one of my children was young and struggled with rigid, limited thinking, I used to tell him, “You have a recording that plays on a loop in your head when bad things happen. We can change the recording.” When he was calmer  we brainstormed a new message he could tell himself. And then we practiced it and drew a sign with the new idea to hang in his room. We had the same conversation over and over. Adopting a new perspective is hard work and takes time. Yet, with persistence, human beings have incredible potential to change. My son succeeded in changing the instinctive way he perceived difficulties and has since become incredibly resilient and successful.

We can help our children learn to shift their frameworks, but it takes conscious effort. We must self-reflect to explore how we respond to difficulties. We need to work to reframe our own troubles so that we can then help our children do the same. 

One of the blessings of parenting as a married couple is that men and women often perceive situations differently. When a married couple approaches challenges together, they each benefit from learning the viewpoint of the other, effectively broadening each one’s framework.  It’s not a problem that a husband sees their child differently than a mother does, it’s a gift that allows each one to see a new perspective. I hope you will join my husband and me on January 10 as we explore many aspects of parenting as a married couple including this lesson from Yosef and his brothers.

One of my children living in Jerusalem took the picture below (right) from his dormitory window. He told me that helicopters like these fly past his room every hour bringing severely injured soldiers to the hospital. Please continue to pray for the safety of the soldiers and all of Israel.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Staff Sergeant (res.) Elisha Yehonatan Lober who fell in battle in Gaza. May Hashem comfort his family and avenge his blood. Yehonatan's grieving father shared the following message:

"In the name of the entire nation of Israel, we are proud of him and thank him for being a part of wiping out evil in the world and destroying our enemies. We do not have anything in our hearts against the Holy One, blessed be He, we do not have anything in our hearts against the Israeli government, we do not have anything in our hearts against the IDF and the decisions of its commanders in the field. We embrace the entire people of Israel and ask the media and everyone in our nation, please, one day of unity for the upliftment of his soul. Please do not write or broadcast anything that sows discord. Please, speak well, highlight the good in the decision makers and in our wonderful people that Yehonatan would be proud to fight for."


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Jan 01
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So many valuable ideas in this piece!

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Thank you. It can be a really tough lesson to learn personal empowerment.

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