If you find yourself doing everything for your child, you may be engaging in what I refer to as martyr parenting. Without even realizing it, well-meaning parents can turn into martyrs for their kids. If this is you, you must learn to step back. You must learn to stop being the martyr so that your child learns to face consequences and overcome hardships. This is the only way that your child will learn real responsibility.
I’ve worked with many martyr parents. One woman, I’ll call her “Susan,” stands out. When I met Susan, she’d been fighting the school, her family, and everyone else since her son “Kyle” was born. He had behavioral problems and a learning disability. But, his learning disability didn’t keep him from figuring out early on that he didn’t have to work very hard to get through the day because his mother would just take care of things for him.
For Susan, her son’s comfortable lifestyle was exhausting. Susan worked extra hard to make sure Kyle was never distressed in any way. She would get him out of bed in the morning. She would do his homework. And she would take responsibility for Kyle’s outbursts at school. In short, she was doing many things for him that he should have been doing for himself.
By the time the family came to me, Susan was burnt out and rightly concerned that Kyle was on a very dangerous path. He had recently gone from getting kicked out of school to getting into trouble with the law.
What I told her is what I’ll tell you: martyr parenting is not about being a good parent or a bad parent. Martyr parenting is simply an ineffective strategy in helping your child develop basic life skills. To put it bluntly, martyr parenting deprives your child of the opportunity to learn valuable skills.
I want to be clear: the martyr parent isn’t the dedicated parent who does a lot for their kids. It isn’t the soccer mom who taxis her daughter to and from school, sports, and part-time jobs. And it isn’t the father who’s the number one fan at all his son’s baseball games.
Instead, the term “martyr” refers to parents who do for their kids things their kids ought to be doing for themselves. And they do these things primarily out of fear and anxiety, not dedication.
Most martyr parents have two big fears. They fear their child might fail, or they fear their child might act out. Because of these fears, martyrs are anxious when their child feels any discomfort or distress in daily life activities.
The martyr parent’s reaction to their fears and anxieties is to adjust the child’s environment, rather than to teach the child to cope.
For instance, when their child is stressed by too much homework, the martyr parent’s first instinct is to fight with the school to give them less homework. Or, if that doesn’t work, they do the child’s homework themselves. Of course, there are some cases where teachers and schools go too far, but by-and-large, kids have a lot of homework because there’s a lot to learn. Kids need to deal with this reality.
Martyr parents constantly worry that their child is not going to feel good enough about themselves. But in pursuit of developing their child’s self-esteem, they undermine the development of their coping skills.
Children develop coping skills by dealing with adversity. By adversity, I don’t mean artificial adversity as controlled by the parent. Rather, I mean the real distress that happens when a kid has a ton of homework and can’t get it done because of soccer practice. Or when they have chores to do around the house but haven’t completed them because they’ve been playing video games. Or when they break a rule in school and have to face the consequences.
When a child is in distress because they have too much homework, the parent’s job isn’t to do the work for their child, but rather to help their child get organized so that they can do the work themselves. Likewise, if a child breaks the rules in school, the parent’s job isn’t to get their child out of paying the consequences, it’s to help their child learn to face the consequences.
The fact is, a lot is asked of kids today; life’s demands are great. And today’s children are not only competing with their peers, but they’re also competing with the world. It’s a problem all kids face. The martyr parent tries to solve this problem by shielding their child in different ways from the pressures of twenty-first-century living, including doing the work for them.
Similarly, when these parents have kids who behaviorally act out, they try to rearrange the child’s world, hoping that the absence of stressors will lead to less acting out. But remember, less acting out does not equal more coping skills. And you can’t rearrange your child’s world forever.
Parents of kids with behavior problems or learning disabilities often spend much of their time trying to prevent their children from acting out. How do they do this? By shielding their child from stressful situations and doing too much for their child. While this may feel natural to the parent, the child learns that the less behavioral ability they show, the less will be asked of them. It’s a concept psychologists call learned helplessness.
Make no bones about it: parents who take on the role of martyr teach their children to be helpless. As a result, these children don’t experience the challenges they need to develop the problem-solving skills to get through life. And kids with behavior problems need to improve their skills more than other kids. And if they don’t, you see their disruptive behavior played out into adolescence and adulthood.
Unfortunately, once these kids are adults, their parents continue to play the martyr, always overdoing and picking up after every misstep to “keep them out of trouble.” In my opinion, these parents need a lot of guidance on how to balance helping their child manage stress while, at the same time, allowing their child to deal with adversity on their own.
The parent who acts as a martyr is forced to constantly lower expectations and accept less and less from the child. So when the child doesn’t fulfill obligations, such as chores or homework, the parent lowers expectations and then praises them for their diminished efforts. As a result, children learn that praise and approval don’t have to be earned—they can be demanded. And parents recognize that misbehavior will ensue if they don’t lower expectations and approve of the child’s efforts.
The more the martyr parent lowers expectations and shields their child from stress, the more the child gets the implicit message that the parent has no confidence in them. If you’re constantly fighting with the school over how much homework your child has, the child begins to realize their parents don’t think they can do the work.
The parent’s logic is, “If we make it easier on him, he’ll manage it better.”
But the child’s thinking, “My mom and dad think I’m incompetent. They think I can’t do as much as the other kids.”
Ultimately, the child begins to believe that they really aren’t as good as the other kids. And the parent’s goal of trying to protect their child’s self-esteem backfires.
Many special education programs make this mistake as well. They make things easier for the child, trying to boost their self-esteem. But the truth is that kids feel good about accomplishing things that are difficult for them. When they have low expectations and do many of the same tasks over and over again, they don’t feel good about themselves. It’s when kids master new and difficult tasks that their self-esteem develops.
But what if you stop being the martyr and your child subsequently fails? In my opinion, failure is underrated. Your child at least has the opportunity to learn from their failures. But, if you shield your child from failure, they learn nothing and are no better prepared to deal with the next inevitable problem that comes their way.
Of course, once kids start underperforming, once they learn to be helpless, and once they believe they’re not as good as the other kids, they will continue that pattern throughout adolescence and into adulthood. As a result, the parent is forced to do more and more shielding and defending as time goes on. The result is always the same—you are substituting your child’s effort and energy for your own. It’s exhausting.
Parents who function in this way inevitably wind up feeling isolated and alone. They also end up feeling like failures because, of course, you can’t protect your kids from everything.
Parents fall into the martyr role for a variety of reasons, most of them very well-meaning. In my experience, these parents are loving and caring people who are just anxious about their kids. Nevertheless, they ineffectively manage their anxiety by being the martyr.
I’ve worked with many parents who had gotten stuck being the martyr. They didn’t know any other way. I would tell them that the first step in getting unstuck is to decide when and where they’re going to step back. And, most important, what their new role will be once they do step back.
I advise them to stop playing the role of martyr for their kids and, instead, take on the role of teacher. As teacher, you coach your child to solve problems, making sure that they do the work themselves. You also set limits for them and hold them accountable. Until you take on the teaching role, it’s very difficult to step back and to stop being the martyr for your child.
My suggestion to parents first taking on the teaching role is to start by picking one thing that their child doesn’t cope with well. This could be a difficult problem or task that you usually do for your child. Let’s say it’s juggling homework, sports, social life, and sleep. Instead of managing all these for the child, I think it’s a good opportunity for the parent to sit down and tell them:
“Let’s make a list of all the things you have to do. And let’s figure out how you’ll fit them into the night.”
In doing so, you help your child see that there are some things they can’t do every night. It’s often helpful with children to give them an either/or choice. You can say:
“Either you can watch some TV, or talk to your friends on the phone. You can’t do both and still get everything else done.”
Teach them how to make choices. Help them develop a schedule. Talk about how to set priorities. Show them the problem, and then allow them to solve it on their own by making choices.
Parents also need to think about their own expectations for their child. I’ve had personal experience with parents who push their kids in sports and activities, and then they expect them to excel academically. This whole cycle of stress and demands takes a toll on kids. Many of these kids spend years sleep deprived at a time when their developing brains need sleep the most. Parents have to step back and ask themselves:
“Are all these activities for my child? Or are they for me?”
If your child is involved in lots of activities and is struggling, they may be doing too much. Talk to your child about this and make an honest assessment.
Remember, children don’t grow if they don’t stumble from time to time. Stumbling is how they learned to walk. And it’s how they will learn to be adults.
I know it’s hard for a parent is to see their child distressed. Indeed, your every parenting instinct, as well as most of the popular media, tells you to rush in and protect your child. But if you rush in and protect, the message to your child is, “You can’t do it.” Instead, the message should be:
“You can do it. I believe that you can do it.”
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.