I get this question all the time from parents: “I want to help my kid, because I see that he is struggling, but how do I help without enabling him?” We tend to go from one extreme to the other.
- Some parents try to “force” their kids to do what they think is “their best,” and then get increasingly frustrated because their child is inconsistent or doesn’t seem to want to do the work.
- On the other extreme, some parents do too much for their kids. I know of a parent of a dyslexic child who did her son’s homework for him when he couldn’t keep up.
What’s the best way to handle it?
First, understand that you have two goals.
- You want to help your kids learn do those things that are difficult for them.
- You want to continue to foster and grow their independence at a pace that makes sense.
The key to accomplishing both of these goals is to get clear about how to set reasonable and realistic expectations for your child.
How to Best Set Expectations?
- Shed the “shoulds” – Everywhere we look there are books and resources, teachers, and well-meaning family members telling us what our kids should be able to do. If we make our decisions based on what we think they should be able to do, rather than what they can do, it can be stressful — for your kid, and for you. I work with parents of “complex” kids, and those kids are often 3-5 years behind their peers in some areas of development. It’s an important part of the considerations needed when setting expectations. So listen to the advice with an open mind, and then make your decisions in the context of your child’s development. My best decisions always balance my knowledge, my emotions, and my intuition about the situation.
- Meet them where they are – The goal here is to figure out what your kids can do comfortably and consistently, and then raise the bar from there. The reality is that children don’t come “one size fits all” — and it takes a bit of detective work to figure out what the right level is. Imagine your child climbing the stairs toward independence. Instead of standing on the stair where you think he should be and trying to “drag him up,” walk down to the step where you think he is, and help him map out a plan to get to the next step. For example, if your child doesn’t remember to brush his teeth on his own, but can comfortably do it when you remind him, that is the step he is on. If you choose to take aim on this issue, the next step might be to help him develop his own structure or reminder system that could replace you in the process.
- Let go of the fear – Most of the time, your frustration is based on some underlying fear…. If he can’t remember to brush his teeth, how will he ever get up and go to work every day? If he can’t finish his homework without a battle, how will he be able to get into the college of his choice. Our kids all have their own trajectory. Trust that developing independence happens step by step. Stay on your child’s step, instead of worrying about what might happen 10 years from now!
What is your role?
So the other side of this is when to help and when not to help – never a clear answer and depends on your child’s age and maturity. As a rule of thumb, consider the following:
Elementary age: Parent’s role is directing their work, and motivating the effort. You may often be telling them what they should be doing and helping them stay motivated to get it done.
Middle school: This is a major stage of transition. The goal here is to support your child while maintaining a balance of not enabling. The distinction I like to make is that if you are doing something “for” them it could be enabling, so you might want to take a closer look and if you are doing something with them and/or in support of their role, you are more likely supporting.
High School: The role of the parent at this level is to continue to foster independence. Consistently asking yourself how can I help my child “own” more of this situation is important. Also keep in mind that it’s a gradual process and your child might not just wake the first day of 9th grade ready to do it all on his own. Even if he thinks he can!
College: Ah, that time when our kids are living on their own… Complete freedom, yes? Unfortunately, perhaps not! The parent’s role here continues to be to help your (adult) child “own” her life and challenges as much as possible, and at the same time make sure they know you have their back – at least emotionally – if struggles arise. The point is it’s their life, but as parents we will likely always struggle to manage how much, or how little to get involved. Read this great article that Elaine wrote when her daughter moved away from home…
This is not an easy answer, but hopefully this gives you some direction. It can be a frustrating conundrum to figure out – especially because kids are rarely consistent – and we often want to find the “right” answer. So know that it’s a process, and focus on what you really want for your child, to help them AND to assist them in independence. And don’t forget that other goal we tend to forget – enjoy your child – they are only with you for awhile!