Have you ever noticed that when things aren’t going right, particularly with your kids, your knee-jerk reaction is to do more of something—not less? If they are not listening to you, you most likely raise your voice, rather than lower it. If they are struggling with something difficult, you jump in with loads of ideas, rather than keeping quiet or offering only one or two ideas.
In truth, however, a softer voice would probably be more effective in getting their attention, while offering fewer of your own ideas would motivate them to devise their own solutions.
In our culture, there is a strong assumption that when our children are struggling it means they need more: more attention, more time, more focus, more love. Johnny seems a bit day-dreamy lately, so perhaps he needs more attention from his parents. Jessie isn’t doing well enough in school this semester, maybe she needs more focus from teachers and parents. Or Emma seems to have low self-esteem, so maybe she needs more love, acknowledgement, and approval.
Maybe for some kids and for some parents, this is true some of the time—but most of the time it is not. Often, giving more of those things is a sure way to impair our children. Even though we react this way out of love, we can be causing the very opposite result of what we intend.
From Day 1, we’ve been conditioned to over-function for our kids. By overdoing, over-giving, and over-praising, we are contributing to their ultimate dependence on these things.
As a result, now Jessie believes she can’t manage her schoolwork without lots of help from her parents. Emma can’t feel good about herself unless she gets others’ approval and acknowledgement, while Johnny doesn’t know how to regulate himself without getting others’ time, focus and attention. We have unwittingly encouraged dependence rather than self-reliance. Kids get addicted. And sometimes we parents get our own validation by feeling useful and necessary through over-doing for our children. But in the end, they learn helplessness rather than resilience.
We hear all the time that in order to be a good parent, partner, or friend it is important to fulfill others’ needs and be empathetic to their feelings. Yes, that is important, but only up to a point.
For example, 13-year-old Nicole was very anxious about going on sleepovers at friends’ houses. Her parents empathized with her pain and struggle so much that they ran to pick her up as soon as she texted them with any indication of her discomfort. They would bring her home and hug her and listen to her express her sadness about “failing” again. They would do whatever they could to make her feel better and assure her that she had not failed, she was just not ready.
Is it possible that what Nicole really needed was to become more responsible for herself? Her parents could have encouraged her to challenge her fear, manage her anxiety, and regulate her own emotions.
If Nicole’s parents acknowledged her struggle and pain without rescuing her from it, Nicole could finally have grown up and become a more self-reliant and responsible person. This, of course, requires the parents to tolerate her pain. Although it can be very hard to do, it is only when parents can raise their tolerance level for their child’s pain that their child can be motivated to do the same.
So is more ever better than less? Of course—here are four examples.
Be there for your kids in the ways they actually need you, but move out of their way otherwise. And learn to know the difference.
When you are told by teachers, in-laws and friends that your kids seem to need more from you—attention, time, focus, acknowledgement, approval—stop and think hard about it. Do they really? Are you actually neglecting them? If so, then of course you should do more of what they need from you.
However, in the more likely scenario, they are getting more than enough from you. So it’s best for them if you cut back and let them struggle to find their own legs. Letting go will leave you feeling wobbly at first, but with practice and time, you will find your own strong legs to stand on.
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.