“How do I know when I’m doing too much for my child? I don’t want to hover, but I also worry that there are things she can’t handle by herself.  When should I get involved?”  This concern is voiced by parents of kids who are in kindergarten through college.

The reality is that the way for kids to become competent and independent is precisely by tackling these things by themselves.  If they fall on their face, they get back up and figure out a better way.  For parents, it can be difficult to sit on your hands and watch it play out.

Hovering, enabling, helicoptering (is that even a word?).  They’re all related.  You’re smoothing the way, or taking over, so your child doesn’t have to experience pain or disappointment, or make mistakes. You’re smoothing the way so you don’t have to experience pain and disappointment.  How do you know when you’re enabling or helping?  How do you know when to step in or step aside?  Read on for two essential questions to walk you through it, as well as real-life situations and outcomes.

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I usually define enabling as when you do for someone what he can do for himself. A helper is someone who is available to assist, when asked.  A rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Whose problem is this?”  If it’s not a question of health or safety, the answer often is that it’s up to your teen to handle it.

Does it make a difference whether you think your child should be able to tackle it, or if he truly is capable of handling it?   There will be times you make the assumption that he can (based on age, intelligence and past performance), when, in fact, he may not be fully prepared to take it on. Other times you’re convinced there’s just no way. Either way, neither of you will ever know what he’s capable of until he’s nudged into taking action.  If you step in right away, there’s a good chance you’ll be the enabler.  I encourage you to step aside.

When you do, you demonstrate the courage to shift responsibility over to your teen or pre-teen.  The next question is for her.  “What can you do about that?”  With the right tone of voice, you are expressing confidence that she is capable.  Sometimes there is problem-solving to do.  Other times, it simply means taking the consequences for what she has, or hasn’t done.

What are some instances where this comes up, and what can your child do?

  • Questions about grades
    • She can speak to the teacher herself (and develop her own courage ‘muscles’).
  • Procrastinating with schoolwork
    • Do it, well or poorly, and (maybe) next time plan ahead.
  • Leaving lunch money at home
    • Find someone to borrow from, or go without lunch.  It will bother you more than it bothers her.
  • No clean clothes in the closet
    • Wear something that smells, is wrinkled, or has a stain.   Comments from friends will be much more effective than your nagging.  Nobody ever died from wearing dirty clothes (although you may ‘die’ from embarrassment… even though it’s not your fault.)
  • Leaving an assignment at home
    • Take the consequences of a zero for a missing homework, or a lower grade on a project.  (I know, it hurts to see him unnecessarily lose credit on something he completed. It if bothers him, too, next time he will remember.)
  • Needing a last-minute ride
    • Find someone else to drive, arrive late, or cancel plans.  (Kids are really quite resourceful when something is important to them. Watch how quickly she finds a ride!)

What if your child is stuck?  What you can do, after putting it back in his hands, is offer to be available should he want some help. Encourage your child to ask for help, as needed. Teach him to problem-solve, brainstorm, prioritize, and break tasks down into more manageable pieces.  Help her to anticipate problems, to look at past experiences for insights, to think things through so she’s responding, instead of reacting emotionally.

When you jump in to fix it, you’re reacting to your own discomfort… but make no mistake:  if you continue to hover, helicopter and enable, you’ll have more than discomfort later on.  What you do, or don’t do now determines how independent and successful your kids will be.

Reflection:

  1. Where am I on the helper/enabler scale?
  2. How does it show up in my child’s ability/inability to do for herself?
  3. What is one situation in which I feel able to take a step aside?