Throughout your child’s formative years, you took great pride in being a great parent, doing everything for your child. From making school lunches to making excuses for incomplete homework, you were your child’s personal assistant and trusted ally. You even helped write her college essays.
And then, one day, it hits you: Did you do too much?
From the time your child is an infant, parenting involves navigating fine lines: Do I let him cry it out in the middle of the night, or do I run in and sooth him every time he whimpers?The fine-line conundrum never goes away. Many parents have trouble differentiating between helping and enabling, particularly during their child’s transition into adulthood.
“While it may feel like help in the short term, enabling a child actually hinders their ability to gain autonomy in the long term,” as Maura Koutoujian, a career and life coach at Jody Michael Associates, explains.
“When a child is enabled, they miss out on the opportunity to cultivate intrinsic motivation — a critical component in developing accountability and self-confidence.”
5 Signs You May Be Enabling Your Child
- You find yourself speaking for your child — literally.
When the waiter goes around the table taking orders, do you quickly say, “She’ll have the burger, medium-well, no pickles,” because that’s always been your daughter’s favorite? If a relative asks your son about his career plans, do you chime in before he has a chance to answer? Many well-intentioned parents take control of a situation and/or speak on behalf of their child without realizing it until someone calls it to their attention.
- You’re constantly intervening on your child’s behalf.
Your child didn’t make the volleyball team, so you get on the phone and call the coach … Your child gets a bad grade on a math test, so you email the math teacher … Your child is assigned to work on Black Friday, so you drive over to the store and plead for a schedule change on their behalf. Every time you step in to handle your child’s problem, you send them a message: You’re not strong/smart/capable enough to handle it on your own. Moreover, they miss out on opportunities to develop life skills such as coping with disappointment, asking for help, problem-solving and negotiating — to name a few.
- You do things for your child because it’s easier/faster than showing them how to do it for themselves.
From doing their laundry to creating their first resume, there comes a time when your child is capable of handling age-appropriate tasks on their own. Sometimes it takes longer to explain or supervise a process than to grab the reins and do it yourself, but teaching them how to do these things will result in longer-term gain. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides
- You feel like your child isn’t taking action.
While kids can be fickle, changing pursuits, hobbies and passions as often as their socks, perhaps your child hasn’t developed (or at least voiced) much of a strong interest in anything. Moreover, he hasn’t been able to identify his own strengths. As a result, he seems apathetic — or is quick to defer to your suggestions for activities, colleges and even career paths. This indifference may manifest itself as laziness, when, in fact, it is caused by an underlying ambiguity. Without being given the opportunities to practice, he may not know how to make decisions, even about what grabs his interest.
- You feel guilty when you say “no.”
The dynamics between you and your child may have been put in place many years ago; as a result, they may be difficult to change. Setting limits or saying “no” to requests for money or favors may be unfamiliar territory for you — and may not sit well with your child, who has become accustomed to having things given to/done for her. Keep in mind that difficult is not the same as impossible, and that changing unhealthy patterns will, in the long run, benefit both you and, especially, your child.
How to Stop Enabling Your Child — Now
“One of the most important things a parent can do is let their child make mistakes,” says Maura Koutoujian.
“In a safe environment, a child can explore and learn from their successes and missteps.”
Knowing they have their parents’ support is critical, she emphasizes. “When your child is trying something new, allow them to do the dog paddle for a while. Make sure they know that if they struggle, you’ll send in a life raft when it’s time. You are there for them if they need you.”
Another strategy Maura recommends is to help your child explore self-proclaimed areas of weakness. When your child insists that he “is horrible at math,” for example, try to help him pinpoint the reason(s) why he believes that to be true. Is it because a teacher once told him that, or perhaps he failed a test in one math class? Maybe it’s one type of math he dislikes. Would a tutor help?
Third, acknowledge your child’s unique strengths and abilities. “Make sure your child knows that you believe in her 100 percent, and that you see her authentic self. At the same time, hold her completely accountable, giving her both respect and dignity.
“Over time, she will become more confident, truly believing in herself. As she recognizes her strengths, her self-efficacy will develop as well.”
What other strategies have you found effective in breaking the pattern of enabling your child?
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