When we do too much for our kids—when we over-function for them—we rob them of the skills and practice necessary to develop competence and mastery in life.
Instead of learning life skills, they develop a problem that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. This is certainly not our intention when we aim to help our kids. Indeed, we often don’t even realize that we are over-functioning for them.
When you get stuck in the role of doing too much, you might find it hard to stop. You feel needed. Your kids rely on you. And they come to expect that you will do these things for them.
These examples may sound familiar to you:
Why do we do this? Often it’s to manage our anxieties about our kids. We’re scared they might fail, so we do what we can to ensure that they don’t fail. And in the process, we unwittingly undermine their progress. Doing too much for our kids is not an effective parenting strategy. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
You are over-functioning if you tend to move in quickly with advice, think you know what’s best, have a low threshold for your child’s pain, and don’t allow him to struggle through his problems.
You might have difficulty sharing your own vulnerabilities and spend more time focusing on others’ goals than your own. The people around you may think of you as always reliable and together. And you might not see it as a problem until you start to burn out.
Understand that over–functioning creates a vicious cycle. The more you do for your child, the less he does for himself. And the less he does for himself, the more helpless he seems. And the more powerless he feels. In response, you do even more for him. And the cycle continues.
You may feel 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. I need to save him.”
Recognize when you are doing too much, particularly when your anxiety is high. Stop thinking that doing things for your kids is a virtue. Change the destructive pattern by not rescuing, fixing, mediating, or lecturing. If you feel more pain than your child does about their responsibilities, then you’re probably doing too much for them.
Other signs that your child may be developing learned helplessness include being overly demanding, appearing helpless on purpose, and acting entitled.
Recognize the pattern, and then pay attention to your contribution to the problem. Make a conscious effort to take responsibility for only what belongs to you.
So the next time your daughter comes to you asking your advice on how to handle a difficult situation, change your patterned response of taking control and telling her what to do. Instead, say:
“I don’t know. I would have to think about that. What do you think would be helpful?”
Hand your child back the responsibility to struggle to find her own answers and solutions. Ask your child open-ended questions to get them thinking for themselves. Below are some examples of what I mean by open-ended questions:
Contrary to popular opinion, psychologists don’t usually offer advice. Instead, they ask questions to empower their clients to figure out solutions for themselves. Psychologists will point out errors in thinking and ask probing questions to get clients to come to realizations. Parents can do the same with their kids.
In my parenting program, The Calm Parent AM & PM™, I talk about the concept of “getting into your child’s box” and why we should avoid doing so.
Getting into your child’s box means that you’re getting into a space that belongs to your child, not you. Why do we do this?
The difficult truth for parents is that we don’t do it for our child’s best interests. Instead, we do it to calm ourselves down.
Some typical ways you may invade your child’s boundaries would be to continually 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. You do for them what they should do for themselves.
You tend to believe that without your efforts, they wouldn’t be able to succeed. And in the process, you undermine their success.
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, it’s no longer in your box. Once your child has learned something, it’s their responsibility.
That doesn’t mean you can’t guide them. It’s sufficient to say:
“Is there any way I can be helpful to you here?”
But generally, this task belongs to them now. You don’t need to do something for your child that they can do for themselves.
When you find yourself about to jump in and take charge, stop and ask yourself the following questions:
How do you stop over-functioning for your child? How do you prevent learned helplessness from setting in? Here are some ideas:
You will have to learn how to soothe yourself while watching him struggle. Otherwise, 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.
Doing less for your child doesn’t mean that you detach completely. You’re still there for your child, but you’re not fixing things for them all the time.
One word of caution: many times, people who over–function try to change their role by withdrawing. Remember that you want to do this in a way that’s still loving and connected.
If you want your child to know that you’re stepping back and letting her take care of themselves more, you can say,
“I know you want me to pick up your dirty clothes around the house as 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, step back. Let your child be. If your child doesn’t do it, let them own the 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 box.
Recognize that pulling back will initially cause a problem. 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, change is hard.
What pushback can you expect? Your child might act sick, whine, or argue with you more. They may even act more helpless at first, and they will undoubtedly try to make you feel guilty. When this inevitably happens, it will be very tempting to slip back into your old role, especially if you’re addicted to being the person that does everything.
But try to resist the urge. Stay the course. 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?”
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. He will likely test you to see if he can get you to take on his responsibilities. But remember that staying in your own box is what’s best for both of you in the long run. Remind yourself that facing challenges are great opportunities for kids to grow and mature.
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 a while. You might even experience feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger because you’re getting in touch with your own vulnerabilities.
Understand that many over–functioners hide a lot of their insecurities. It’s hard to admit that we don’t know things or that we feel helpless. Be prepared for these feelings to surface as you start to do things differently.
The biggest problem with learned helplessness in kids is that they often become under-functioning adults who never leave home. Dependent adult children living at home have become a serious problem for many families in recent years. Indeed, many adults living at home are the result of the cycle of over-functioning parents and under-functioning kids.
Consider the 23-year-old adult child living at home who sleeps all day, parties all night, and won’t look for work. Still, you let him live under your roof without paying rent or asking him to leave. You even 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?” Are you helping your adult child, or are you teaching your adult child to be helpless?
Related content: How to Cope with an Adult Child Living at Home
If you have a child diagnosed with a learning disability or a behavioral disorder, it gives you even more reason to do too much for them. It may even feel as if it’s expected, as if it’s an obligation.
But understand that you’re not doing them any favors when you do things for them that they can do for themselves. Rather, you’re taking away the opportunity for them to learn how to do things for themselves. One day, your child will need to go out into the world and function as an adult. You can’t be there forever.
Of course, you need to understand their disability and help them when appropriate. But try not to let your anxiety compel you to overdo it for your child. When that happens, you run the risk of ending up angry, resentful, and burned out. And your child has less opportunity to learn to function on his own.
Facing challenges are great opportunities for kids to grow and mature. Yes, it’s painful to observe our child going through difficult times. As parents, we want to make this stop. We tend to want to jump in and fix things. But, this is when it’s essential that we step back and not step in. Take on the role of teacher and coach, supporting your child through the difficulty, while letting them discover their capabilities. Remember, learning to manage obstacles in life makes us all stronger people.
Related content: Life Skills: Can Your Child Make It in the Real World?
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.