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Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

Your teen leaves his dirty clothes all over the house. Instead of getting into another fight with him or nagging him to pick them up, you do it for him. It’s easier, right?

Your daughter with ADD is having problems completing her science project. She can’t seem to focus and complains that it’s boring and too difficult. After she goes to sleep, you finish it for her. After all, you don’t want her to fail.

"If a parent's emotional needs are met through their child, essentially they’re tying her shoes for her every step of the way."

We all “over–function” in our relationships at times, particularly with our kids. And we often start without even realizing it. Let’s say your toddler knows how to tie her shoes, but you tie them for her anyway, because it’s faster—and it becomes a habit. Or you run back to school when your 13–year–old son, who never remembers anything, forgets his homework again. Or your young adult daughter despairs because she was laid off from her first job and you jump in with advice and try to “fix” the situation without listening to what she has to say first. When you get stuck in a role of doing too much, you might find it hard to give up—and often, those around you might not want you to stop!

Related: Are you worried that you’re doing too much for your child? Learn how to parent calmly.

It’s easy to get stuck in this role because you feel needed, people rely on you and are impressed with how much you do. But understand that over–functioning isn’t just a simple desire to be helpful or an annoying habit to overcome. Look at it this way: if you’re always focused on everybody else, it’s a way to not focus on yourself. Over–functioning is the way we’ve learned to manage our own anxiety by overdoing, just like your under–functioning child has learned to manage stress by underdoing. This turns into a problem when it becomes a fixed pattern in your family.

So for example, let’s say your 23–year–old son sleeps all day, parties all night and won’t look for work, but you let him live under your roof without paying rent or asking him to leave. You find yourself waiting on him hand and foot. Maybe you're going along with this because you're avoiding the discomfort of a confrontation. But the question to ask yourself is, "Is this in my child's best interests or in mine?"   Are you helping your child, or are you teaching your child to be helpless?

Is My Child an “Under–functioner”?

I once worked with a couple who always over–functioned for their child, doing things for her that she could do herself. This daughter always skated through classes because the parents did a lot of her homework. She did not learn how to rely on her own abilities, fall and pick herself back up when she failed, take the necessary risks, develop the ability to think for herself, or try things she might not succeed in doing. Her parents could not tolerate their own anxiety about the uncertainty of their daughter's performance or the pain of watching her struggle. By over-functioning for her, they inadvertently robbed her of the skills and practice necessary to develop competence and mastery in her life. In middle school, she started hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing drugs and drinking. She didn't make it through college and is still living with her parents, who are still taking care of her. Needless to say, they’re really burnt out.

The bottom line is that if a parent’s emotional needs are met through their child, essentially they’re tying her shoes for her every step of the way.

If you have a child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or a behavioral disorder, it gives you even more of a reason to do too much for them. It may even feel as if it’s expected and natural to over–focus on your child. But understand that it’s not really doing them any favors in the long run, because they’re not learning how to do things for themselves. And one day, your child will need to go out into the world and function as an adult. Of course, it's important to understand their disability and help them when appropriate, but try not to let your anxiety compel you to overdo for them and underdo for yourself. When that happens, you run the risk of ending up angry, resentful and burned out.

Does your child’s behavior make you anxious?

What do adult under–functioners look like? Under–functioners are skilled in the art of “learned helplessness.” They have quite literally learned to be helpless, because someone was always there to pick up the pieces for them. They often act irresponsibly, aren’t able to handle uncomfortable emotions well, float without goals, become ill a lot, can tend to become addicted to substances, ask for advice when they need to figure things out for themselves and get others to always help them. They will often search out a partner who will take care of their needs and pick up where their parents left off. And keeping a job is hard for under–functioners, because they’re always looking for someone to swoop in and rescue them. For many people who were raised this way, the world is a scary place—and instead of venturing out and making a life for themselves, they choose to stay home with mom and dad indefinitely.

Am I Doing Too Much?

If you’re doing too much for your child, you will eventually feel burned out and put upon. You can determine if you are an over-functioner if you tend to move in quickly with advice, think you know what’s best, not only for yourself but for others, have a low threshold for your child’s pain and don’t allow him to struggle with his own problems. You might have difficulty sharing your own vulnerability and spend more time focusing on others’ goals than your own. The people around you probably think of you as always reliable and together.

How to motivate your child toward responsible behavior.

You might not see it as a problem until you start to burn out. Understand that over–functioning and under–functioning are a “circular relationship pattern” because these two roles feed off of each other. You may feel over responsible for your child, directing his moods, controlling his decisions and micro–managing his social life. In this way, you unwittingly encourage your child to be passive in life and become an under–functioner. When this happens, he begins to rely on you to do all the things he should be doing for himself. And you think, "He needs me. I can't just let him drown."

Are You in Your Child’s “Box”?

I talk a lot about “getting into your child’s box,” and why we should avoid doing so. This means stepping over your own boundaries or your child’s—or letting him step over yours. You’re getting into a space that actually belongs to him and not to you. Why do we do this? The truth is, we get in there to calm ourselves down, not because it’s in the best interests of our child. Some typical ways you may invade your child’s boundaries would be to constantly hover, treat him as if he knows less than he does, and have his success define you. When you get into your child’s box, you’re trying to rescue, protect, and fix and doing for them what they can already do for themselves. You tend to believe that without your efforts, they wouldn’t be able to succeed.

Let’s say you feel your child relies on you too much and you’re concerned that she’s way too dependent on you. You have been in her box for a very long time. What should you do?

Why staying out of your child’s “box” is the key to better parenting.

1) Recognize that you are doing too much, particularly when anxiety is high. Own it. Stop thinking that over–functioning is a virtue and change your part of the pattern by not rescuing, fixing, mediating, or lecturing. You have to be an observer of the pattern. Pay attention to your contribution to the problem and make a conscious effort to take responsibility for only what belongs to you.

At this stage, it’s less about pulling back and more about observing the pattern that you see in your family and thinking about a plan of action. So the next time your daughter comes to you asking your advice on how to handle a difficult situation, you change your patterned response of taking control and telling her what to do. Instead of immediately giving advice, you might plan to say, “I don’t know, I would have to think about that.” Stop being a “Mr. Fix–it” and hand your child back the responsibility to struggle to find her own answers and solutions.

2) Don’t let “changeback” derail you. Don’t be surprised to find that when you do stop your part of the pattern, your children may try to test you and change you back by making you feel guilty, getting sick, and under–functioning more. This is called “changeback,” and it’s basically your child’s reaction to the change he sees in you. Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable—and when you stop doing so much for your child, he’ll have to start doing more for himself. While he will likely test you to see if he can get you to take on his responsibilities, remember that staying in your own box is what’s best for both of you in the long run.

3) Expect it to hurt. None of this is easy. You will probably feel the emotional pain of letting go of your role as an over–functioner and watching your child flounder for awhile. You might even experience feelings of depression, anxiety and anger because you're getting in touch with your own your vulnerabilities. Understand that many over–functioners hide a lot of their insecurities. It’s hard to own up to the fact that we don’t always know things or that we feel helpless and at a loss at times. Be prepared that these feelings may come to the surface as you start to do things differently.

4) Don’t hesitate. Just start. How do you get started? Just start. Do one thing differently. When you’re ready to pull back and start doing less, I think it’s always better to just begin. Play a different part in the typical role you’ve played. Begin acting differently: be responsible but don’t rescue. When your child comes to you for help, just listen and don’t jump in and fix things. You will have to learn how to soothe yourself while watching him struggle or you might give in to the temptation of functioning for him. When your child whines about homework, don’t sit down and do it for him. Help, but don’t take over. This doesn’t mean that you will detach completely—you’re still there for your child, but you’re not fixing things for him all the time. One word of caution: many times, people who are over–functioners try to change their role by withdrawing. Remember that you want to do this in a way that’s still loving and connected.

5) Expect Push Back when You Pull Back: It’s important to recognize that pulling back will initially cause a problem. Realize that when you do this, you’re changing a system that’s been in place for a long time. Like a machine, every part of the family system has its function. And when one person starts to change their part of it, it’s very threatening to the rest because that means everything has to change. And let’s face it, nobody wants change.

What pushback can you expect? Your child might get sick, whine or argue with you more, and act even more helpless at first. It will be very tempting to slip back into your old role if you’re addicted to being the person that does everything. But try to resist the urge to DO and do the opposite action, which is to NOT DO. Remind yourself that you’re not going to do things for your child that you know he can—and should—do for himself. Just think, “If I do this for my child now, how will he be able to do it for himself later?”

6) Stay in your own box: How do you know if your child is capable or competent at a task? Once they know how to do something, like tying their shoe, then it’s not your box. Once your child has learned something and you’ve helped them learn it, then it’s their responsibility. That doesn’t mean you can’t give them guidance or say, “Is there any way I can be helpful to you here?” But generally, this task is theirs now. You don’t need to be doing something for them that they can do for themselves.

When you find yourself about to jump in and take charge, stop and ask yourself, “Does this belong to me or to my child? Am I doing this to calm myself down because I feel less anxious when I know they’re going to do well? Do I feel like this is somehow my responsibility?  Am I doing this because it’s in my best interest, or their best interest? Am I in my child’s box?”

Talking to Your Child about Pulling Back

If you want to talk to your child about the fact that you’re stepping back and letting them take care of themselves more, you can say, “I know you want me to pick up your dirty clothes around the house like I’ve done in the past, but it’s no longer my job to do. I want to help you to grow up to be a responsible kid. Someday, you’re going to have to take care of yourself and I’m not going to be here to do it.” Then, don’t engage in it. Don’t take it on. If your child doesn’t do it, let him experience the natural consequences.

Another thing you can say to your child to encourage and support him is, “I know you can do this. I think I’ve been doing too much for you. I’ve seen you do it before.  I have a lot of faith that you’ll figure it out. You’re a good problem solver; I’m sure you’ll solve this problem, too. I believe in you.”

And as for yourself, this is a time to get focused on your own goals and development. Your child will benefit as he sees you taking good care of the things that belong in your own box.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

I have to say -I do not always get to read your articles. Sometimes I print them out, in hopes of finding time "later." But everytime I do read them, I take away a nugget. THANK YOU for continuing the commitment that Mr. Lehman began to our children!

Comment By : Rissa\'s Mom

I have been pulling back but I don't know where to draw the line. Long story short, my 18 year-old daughter is pregnant and due soon. She has had several jobs in the last 2 years but she is not a good long-term employee. Family members have taken her in but she burns her bridges quickly. I could put her up in an apartment but my husband fears she will forever be dependent. I am so concerned about her and her child; whT is the right thing to do?

Comment By : Anxious mom

Very good information as always. Overdoing for kids can truly have seriously negative impacts. Their futures, and ours, depend on parents raising them to be self-sustaining. Kids who are taught to think and do for themselves grow into responsible, independent adults who can take care of themselves and contribute to society. I'd rather see my kids fail now, as part of the learning process, as opposed to failing later, when their life or livelihood might depend on their success.

Comment By : Steve G

Recently, I found myself have Nervous disorder, I always about my kids if they are safe walking on the street when take the bus home and walk to the store around three blocks away from home and getting off the car. If they study enought, I always want to give them a lot of practices besides homework. I always feel frustrated when they are not doing the homework or study. Because I always want to compare them with other kids that how come others always receive A's and B's and received advance on their star test and received award but just not my kids. My gustro Reflucts getting more and more serious and always have upset stomach when I am stress. I want to relax but just worry about their future if they do not do good at school, they will not be success when they grow up because not able to compete with others. I always feel I am not a good mother who is not able to raise good kids.

Comment By : desperate mom

I agree 100% with your concept of "learned helplessness." I have a "rule." If you forgot your homework or lunch due to MY fault (I piled my papers on top and you couldn't find your assignment) then I will run it over to school. If you simply "forgot" your lunch of homework due to being disorganized. .. you're out of luck kiddo. However, my son was diagnosed with type I diabetes little over a year ago. He is supposed to keep some of the equipment he needs during the course of a day at school. On a rare occasion I will get a call to bring syringes or insulin to school which is a good 20 minute drive away. I have no choice but to run it over to him. I try to remind him to take more supplies to school with him regularly since he is a teenager and they seem to forget things. I can not afford for him to tough this out.

Comment By : Hinda Leah

My son is 42 years old. I am the living example of what doing too much for you children can do. He is in the process of a divorce right now, fighting for his children. We have spent a small fortune on this divorce to keep him from loosing everything and taking care of his children. He does not seem to realize this is his problem. What do you do? Do you allow him and the children to loose everything, or do you stay involved and try to protect all of them.

Comment By : financially broke mom

Have been following all of your guys articles with my son now into adulthood...it works. How was I supposed to know my drill instructors were right...louder and more steely than TT, but right in line with what you teach. Yes their agendas are different than ours as parents, but a lot of what you all teach us as behavioral modification is what DIs have been doing with adolescents for decades.

Comment By : TurnedIntoMyDad

My son, 20, is an under-functioning adult. He has been in community college but failed many classes. He has not had a job all summer and we have told him we won't pay for classes this fall since he isn't doing the work. We are not giving him money unless he does a specific chore, except we continue to pay for his phone and car. We want to take these things away but will lose communication with no phone. We do not feel comfortable kicking him out onto the street as there are many homeless in our town. Do we just let him flounder endlessly? He is classic ADD and ODD and make an argument out of everything. We have offered him counseling (doesn't wanna go), suggested programs (he's good), discussed possibilities (not interested), but still nothing. Do we kick him out or what?

Comment By : cycruz

First thank you for the artical...truly a good one! I am the mother of a 16 yr old and I do all these things for her...I have a son with ADHD and I find myself doing everything for him as well.... Your artical gave a lot of perspective to my life, and what I feel daily! Thanks for the advice

Comment By : Julie

I have a daughter who has an IEP at a school that meets all her needs. She only has a few friends at her school but she has alot of friends at all different schools. I encourage her to start the year with a postive attitude and meet new friends and enjoy the friends you have there. You can always meet and hang out with your friends from the other schools on weekends and breaks. What my problem as a mom is whatching her struggle socially as well as knowing she needs and can work it out. But the first night before school she yells at me and is clearly upset and asks why she cant go to school with her best friends. She says high School should be all about having fun with your good friends. My question is why am i such a wimp when it comes to this emotional stuff. Why do i feel so responsible emotional for her? I dont want to be helpless or do i have a learned helplessness problem?

Comment By : Wimpie mom

Excellent - touches on many mistakes I've made in parenting - and the consequences for my son, who is 22. We are slowly reversing these patterns, with input from both of us. It has been a slow, at times painful process. I sometimes feel guilty about having used these methods, but am the 'road to recovery, as is he.

Comment By : Laura

* To ‘Anxious mom’: I can understand why your husband is hesitant about paying for an apartment for your daughter. If you get her a place, what motivation will she have to get a job and stand on her own two feet, so to speak? What might be more effective is setting up a living agreement. What this might look like is that you require her to get a job in order to continue living in your home. This, of course, would begin within a reasonable amount of time after your daughter has recovered from the delivery process. You could require her to pay you rent, which you could then stash away in a special savings account. Once there is enough money saved up from the “rent,” then you can transition her to her own place using that money. You might also require her to look into local supports that might help her, such as childcare assistance for example. A good resource for finding such resources anywhere in the country is the 211 National Helpline, 1-800-273-6222. We wish you luck as you work through this and congratulations on your new grandchild.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘financially broke mom’: It sounds like your family is going through a really tough time. Divorces and custody battles can take a toll on everyone in a family, not just the couple divorcing. Whether you keep paying your son’s legal fees is of course completely your decision. What we do suggest is that you establish some limits on what you are willing and able to reasonably do to help him without sacrificing too much of your own resources, both emotional and financial. You say that your son refuses to accept that this is his problem, but as long as you continue to make it your problem, he may not have a chance to change his perspective and fight his own battles, so to speak. These are just some things to think about as you continue to make your decision. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘cycruz’: It sounds like you are quite frustrated with your son right now. Whether you kick him out or not is your decision. However, it might be helpful for you to try another approach first, such as setting up a living agreement. You can use your son’s phone and car access as a means of motivating him to meet the requirements of the agreement. For example, you might require him to get up by a certain time and apply for a certain number of jobs each day in order to have his phone for the day. I am including a three-part series of articles about adult children that will give you more helpful ideas. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘Wimpie mom’: Most parents feel like it’s their job to take care of their kids emotionally. Your child feels like such a major part of you that it can be easy to forget that you and your child are two completely separate people. Debbie Pincus feels that it’s important for parents to “untangle” themselves from their children and strive to become emotionally separate. It sounds like you understand that parenting from that emotional place is not effective. In her Calm Parent program, Debbie gives you the tools to help you stop feeling so responsible for your daughter emotionally. It might be worth looking into. I think it will help you answer these tough questions you are asking today. I am including a couple more of Debbie’s articles so you can get a better idea of her approach to parenting. This isn’t easy. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
Control Freak vs. Pushover Parenting: Why Neither Works
5 Secrets for Communicating with Teenagers

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

First I would like to sincerely thank everyone involved with this site & the programs offered. Your site has opened my eyes to so many things & answered so many questions.  My question is, how does the adult child recover from this or CAN the adult child recover from this & be reconditioned?  I found this site while looking for parenting information to help me with my seven year old son; but it seems I may have found information to finally help myself. Because the girl described in "Is My Child An Under-Functioner?," is me.......And I don't want to be that girl anymore.

Comment By : AdultChild & ChildParent

* To ‘AdultChild & ChildParent’: It sounds like you have gained some invaluable self-awareness by reading this article. We are so incredibly glad to be able to help you in that way. You ask some tough questions here about yourself and we feel that those questions will be best addressed by someone on your local area with whom you can sit down and really dive into this topic with. You can begin your search for local supports by visiting www.211.org or calling the 211National Information and Referral Helpline at 1-800-273-6222. Good luck on this journey. We wish you all the best.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Wow- I am that mother and I have that 23 year old. I can only hope it isn't too late for either of us...

Comment By : Mary

Wow...this is so my problem. My son is OCD and ADHD and does horribly in school. I have OCD and anxiety issues myself. I'm so terrified of him failing that I end up doing way too much for him. I pick up his clothes and wait on him constantly. I help him with his homework to the point where I am doing it. He tells me I smother him. I don't want to smother him, but I'm scared. My own mother was very distant and never showed any affection. I had to do everything for myself and was often left alone to fend for myself. So, I'm trying to compensate by over giving to him but I know it's wrong. It's just being raised with the boundaries so far in the other direction it's hard for me to know what is acceptable and normal.

Comment By : BBuzz

This has given me much food for thought. Although it will be hard to watch my child suffer the natural consequences of her actions I agree it is in her best interests. How do we deal with things like them not clearing dishes from around the house? Although I am willing to let her take the fall for things that directly effect her, things like dirty dishes don't bother her, they bother me. How do we get them to do those types of things without the constant and repetitive nagging. I get so sick of asking that I just do it myself.

Comment By : Juls

Very important. Sharing!

Comment By : Laura Grace Weldon

* To Juls: It is difficult to motivate kids to do what they are supposed to, and even more so when it is something that doesn’t appear to affect them directly or immediately. We recommend asking her to do it once, and then tying the completion of a chore to earning a privilege later on that day. If it is a chore that doesn’t affect other family members directly, we recommend not doing the chore for her either. By doing her chores after asking her repeatedly, the lesson she is learning is that it is OK to ignore your requests, because if she puts it off long enough, someone else will do it for her. If it is something more time-sensitive, or if it affects other family members, you can set a time limit for the chore to be done as well. For example, you might tell your daughter “The dishes need to be done by 5:30PM. If they are not done by then, you do not get to watch television tonight.” If she refuses to do what you are asking and doesn’t earn her privilege, we recommend having a problem-solving conversation about what she can do differently tomorrow to earn it. For more information about motivating kids to do chores, check out "I'll Do It Later!"6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now Thank you for writing in, and we wish you and your family the best.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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