Stop Fixing Things: Why Children Should Be Allowed to Make Mistakes

A grade-school paper shoes 100% grade marked on it, and has a smiley-face sticker added/We are all familiar with the experience of good intentions having negative consequences. In my work as a therapist, I often encounter this phenomenon when I work with parents who, in their desire to make things better, easier, or less painful for their children, interfere with their child’s ability to develop the capacity to do for themselves. These are parents who feel an urgent need to fix their child’s problems. For the purpose of this discussion, “fixing” will refer to the intervening and usurping of problem-solving when one’s child experiences difficulty.

Gloria wanted to fix her daughter Alice’s feelings. She worried when Alice was unhappy, angry, upset, or had any feeling she felt caused discomfort for her child. For example, when Alice got frustrated and tearful when she practiced piano, Gloria suggested she stop her lessons. In therapy, Gloria told me how disturbing it was to her when Alice was upset. She recalled, “When Alice was an infant, I couldn’t stand to let her cry even for a minute. My heart felt like it would break. When Alice gets upset because I say ‘no’ to her, I always give in. I can’t stand it. It always seems like I’ve hurt her when I say ‘no.’” Gloria urgently needed Alice’s bad feelings to go away. What Gloria eventually came to understand was that what was urgent was that she, Gloria, be rid of her own uncomfortable feelings.

Fred had a hard time when his fifth-grade son Eddie brought home average grades from school. He told me that he felt Eddie was much smarter than his grades showed, and he felt his job as a parent was to help him do better. This sounds like a responsible, caring parent talking. Unfortunately, Fred didn’t just provide some assistance so Eddie could do better, like going over his homework and helping him with his social studies projects. Rather, Fred intruded in what Eddie needed to do every day. For example, when Eddie was assigned to do a book report and make a diorama about the life of the protagonist, Fred read the book, bought supplies, outlined what should be in the diorama, and essentially did the project for Eddie. Eddie got an A, and Fred was thrilled!

While Fred’s intervention did fix Eddie’s grades, Eddie was given little opportunity to figure things out for himself. In therapy, Fred became aware that “this isn’t helping my son. I’m really scared that Eddie could follow in my footsteps and repeat my terrible academic failures.” As we focused on Fred’s anxiety around allowing Eddie to become a separate, self-confident individual with his own strengths and failures, Fred was increasingly able to talk with his son. He was able to encourage Eddie rather than take over his academic life.

Pam, a 29-year-old woman had difficulty dating and forming relationships. When she started therapy she told me that she didn’t have much trouble meeting men, but there was always some difficulty in the relationships, and they never got very far. As we explored her life and dating experiences, she explained that her biggest help was her father. She described him as exceptionally loving and caring and her “go-to” person when she had trouble in a relationship. She explained that a typical difficulty when she dated was that she would feel very hurt and upset when someone she dated didn’t call or text her quickly enough. Pam said, “When that happens, I call my father right away and I know he will comfort me. When I was a kid, he would do the same when a girlfriend hurt me. He gives me the same advice with guys as he did with those girls. He always says the same thing: ‘get rid of them—you don’t need people who hurt you in your life.’”

As we explored this dynamic further, it became evident that Pam’s well-intentioned father couldn’t bear witnessing Pam feeling hurt or upset. He would fix her relationships by encouraging her to get rid of the person who hurt her. This would not only alleviate Pam’s hurt but would take away the feelings he couldn’t tolerate. As a consequence, Pam had not developed the ability to manage her feelings and correctly judge how others were treating her. She had not learned how to deal interpersonally with another person in a relationship.

When parents can’t allow their children to struggle through problems and feelings, it is often because they, themselves, can’t tolerate how watching the struggle makes them feel. Some parents identify with their child. They recall their own feelings, like frustration or hurt or anger, and may assume that their child is experiencing what they experienced in that situation (although it may be a very different experience for the child). The desire to protect one’s child is necessary and desirable in a parent. But when the protection stems from the parents’ discomfort around their own feelings, it can create issues that impact the child’s development of self.

Children who are never allowed to cry, for example, may not learn how to soothe themselves. When children don’t learn how to self-soothe, they are frequently unable to cope with the normal stresses and frustrations of everyday life. Very often a parent’s worry about their child’s feelings can be communicated to the child. When a parent anxiously steps in to help or fix, the child may feel (consciously or unconsciously) that the parent doesn’t think the child has the capacity to work things out on his/her own. Children whose parents take over their work and do it for them are deprived of experiencing “I can do it.” Their ego enhancement, self-confidence, and self-esteem are interfered with. Parents who interrupt whenever a possible failure lurks do not prepare their children for success, because one must be able to tolerate failure in order to achieve success.

While there certainly are times when it is useful and wonderful to be there for your child and be helpful, the “fixer” parents described here did not help their children. They made themselves feel better. They may have made their children feel temporarily better: Eddie got his project done and got an A, and Pam felt reassured that she knew what to do when a date didn’t respond the way she wanted. Alice was relieved of her painful feelings, but didn’t develop the ability to cope. Not one of these children was helped toward developing a strong sense of competence or the ability to manage his or her feelings in the world.

Rather than extreme fixing, there are alternative behaviors when the urge to fix things for your children is present. Trying to address the problem with your child—rather than springing into action to help—can allow a child to feel like a participant, giving him or her a sense of self-esteem. Leaving space for a child to be uncomfortable communicates that you have faith that your child can find a way to figure out what he or she wants, and how to get it. It is important to communicate that it is okay to struggle, that it is a human experience that we all must learn to endure. It has to be okay to be uncertain and not know what results efforts will bring. Parents have to be able to tolerate their own anxiety and not jump in to solve their child’s problems. This allows the child to develop a healthy separate self and become a competent, assertive, and confident person in the world.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Daniel

    August 13th, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Well,life isn’t a bed of roses.andthe sooner children find that out the better it is for may not want your child to fall down when they are starting to learn cycling that is fine but the response needed is to equip them with protective gear,not stopping the cycling or doing it yourself!that will only be counter productive to the development of the child!

  • Tim

    August 13th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    Parents have this natural inclination to want to soothe teir children and to always make it all better for them. What they don’t realize however, is that many times they are doing more harm than they are good when it comes to teaching their children to do the right thing and how to take care of themselves. If we are always stepping in and solving all of their problems, then how are they ever going to learn to solve their problems on their own? We have to teach them how to be responsible adults- that is a big part of our job as parents, and if we don’t do this for them then we have in essence failed at a large part of our job.

  • meeghan

    August 13th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    They try to fix it because they always think they know best
    hey, we do make mistakes but we are not idiots
    And don’t you know that sometimes you make things even worse when you do step in and try to make things right?
    let us learn, ;et us fall, let us succeed on our own and feel good about that

  • Draco

    August 13th, 2012 at 7:38 PM

    This kind of excessive fixing by my parents troubled me and my siblings when we were little but we managed to tide over it.They began to see how their over protectionist behavior was hurting our growth and modified it thankfully.We did have issues but got over them eventually.

    My advice would be to actually let the children go through a tough course so they are better prepared for things that life throws at them.I will follow this same advice when I have kids myself too.

  • mandy

    August 14th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    I have a younger brother who my parents are always having to bail out of trouble. Credit card bill here, house payment there. He is running his and their finances both into the ground! They say they do it because they don’t want his credit to be shot- too late, it already is! When you are thirty years old and having to ask your parents for money every time you turn around, then chances are good that your finances are already in tatters.

  • Irma

    August 14th, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Nothing against moms and dads, but sometimes when you want to know what’s going on with the kids and what makes then they way that they are, perhaps you should take a good hard look in the mirror.
    We all try our best to be the best parents for our kids, I know that we do. And for the most part many of us are a success at that. But what about those that don’t turn out so well?
    You can’t just be willing to take responsibility for them when things are good and their lives are good. You have to be willing to own up to what role you play in their lives when things are bad too.
    This whole parent/child thing is definitely a two way street.

  • A.J

    August 14th, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    I read the title and I was like, “Yes, because they love their kids and want to help them any which way” but all the points mentioned here are so true. I never thought it could also be due to the insecurities that a parent has. That is really possible in fact. I have seen a lot of parents do this to their kids, helping them at each step, but really, teach a man how to fish rather than giving him fish, people!

  • Glenn sparks

    August 14th, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    I suppose that at times I have been that parent who wants my kids to live up to the things that I always wanted for myself and not necessarily because they would be the best choices for them. I wanted the ball player, I wanted the musician, I wanted the straight A student, all because I never had the chance to be those things myself. I took very little consideration that these might not be the strengths of my child, not just the things that I loved and thought were important. I wanted all these things for them and I wanted them to succeed but I had to learn that it could not always be on my own terms, that it neede to be on theirs.

  • Jupiterminator

    August 14th, 2012 at 6:41 PM

    It is the same parents whose attitude is such that they only care about the result on the progress report and not whether their child has learnt anything in reality.

    They only care about end results and not the means to get that result.I am afraid they might be the same individuals who use the same philosophy in their personal and professional relationships too!

  • parker

    August 16th, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    If this is what makes a parent feel good, and they are comfortable with doing it for the rest of their lives, because that’s what happens when you continue to hold an adult child’s hand, then let them do it.
    Anyone with half a brain has to know that helping your child is not always helping them at all.
    But if they are not willing to accept this, then go on, keep saving them, and let go of the life you are trying to live because all you will have time to do is to continually go out on a limb and save that child who should really know how to take care of himself by now.

  • Lisa

    March 8th, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    This is very true…I see now where I handled too many things for my kids and I shorted them on skills that they need now. We overcompensate and “SHELTER” our children by not allowing our children to experience true hardships that cultivate character building skills necessary for growth. We said that we “love” our children too much to see them suffer they way we did. We vowed that our children wouldn’t have it as hard as WE did as children and what we have done is harvested a generation of “Me” kids that feel that they are entitled instead of learning how to work and earn the things they want. We crippled these kids. Unfortunately, we have done a disservice to not just our kids but their children. Who will teach them the skills of problem solving and how to “Survive” and how to “Make It?” Now I am watching my kids struggle as adults and I am kicking myself everyday.

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