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