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

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Mom helping child with homework

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 learn 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 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:

  • Your toddler knows how to tie her shoes, but you tie them for her anyway because it’s faster.
  • You run back to school when your forgetful 13–year–old son forgets his homework again.
  • 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.

Why do we do this? Often it’s to manage our own 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 own progress. This is not an effective parenting strategy. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

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Under-Functioning Adult Kids Living at Home

The biggest problem with under-functioning kids is that they often become under-functioning adults. This has 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

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Kids with Disabilities

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.

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. 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, it’s important to understand their disability and help them when appropriate. But try not to let your anxiety compel you to overdo it for them. 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.

Am I Doing Too Much?

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 with his own problems.

Related content: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

You might have difficulty sharing your own vulnerability and spend more time focusing on others’ goals than your own. The people around you may actually 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 helpless 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.”

Related content: Motivating Underachievers: 9 Steps to Take When Your Child Says “I Don’t Care”

Are You in Your Child’s “Box”?

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 actually belongs to him, not you. Why do we do this?

The difficult truth for parents is that we don’t do it for the best interests of our child. Instead, we do it to calm ourselves down.

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. 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.

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. It’s fine to 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 the following questions:

  • Does this belong to me or to my child?
  • Am I doing this to calm myself down? To reduce my anxiety level?
  • 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?

Recognize When You Are Doing Too Much

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.

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, just say:

“I don’t know, I would have to think about that.”

Hand your child back the responsibility to struggle to find her own answers and solutions.

How to Stop Over-Functioning

How do you stop over-functioning for your child? Just do it. Don’t hesitate. Here are some ideas:

  • Do just one thing differently at first.
  • Play a different role than the typical one you’ve played.
  • 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. 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.

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.

Expect Pushback

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. He might even act 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. 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?”

Expect Some Personal Pain

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 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. Be prepared for these feelings to surface as you start to do things differently.

Don’t Let “Changeback” Derail You

Don’t be surprised to find that when you stop over-functioning, your child may try to change you back. They will do this by trying to make you feel guilty, by pretending to be sick, and by under–functioning more. This is called “changeback,” and it’s basically your child’s reaction to the change he sees in you.

If this happens, stay the course. It means that what you are doing is working and your child is coming to the difficult realization that he needs to begin helping himself.

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 just remember that staying in your own box is what’s best for both of you in the long run.

Talking to Your Child about Pulling Back

If you want your child to know that you’re stepping back and letting her take care of herself 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, step back. Let your child be. If your child doesn’t do it, let him own the consequences.

Related content: Why You Should Let Your Child Fail: The Benefits of 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.

About

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 (which is included in The Total Transformation® Online Package) and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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