Want to Help Your Kids? You Can Start by Not Helping Them

Young child with short, tousled hair has intense expression of concentration while doing chin-up on purple barWhether it’s sleep training, shoe tying, or school projects, there are thousands of moments when parents have to sit on their hands and let their children struggle. We know it’s important for them to learn things on their own. But watching them cry and writhe through a challenge is one of hardest tasks of parenthood.

Ironically, it’s our wonderful and natural parental instinct that makes it so tough to stop ourselves from helping. The drive that pushes us to comfort a crying baby, visit the emergency room instead of giggling when a toddler eats a ball bearing (that was my Christmas break 2008), or insist a cranky preteen finish just one bite of cauliflower is the same drive that makes us want to jump in and fight every fight for them.

It feels loving to help. But we may be doing more harm than good by not allowing our kids to develop their own ways of working things out. This could be finding their hand to suck on when they’re trying to fall asleep, devising a story about helpful stuffed animals when they’re scared at night, or figuring out a hard math problem on their own. Kids come up with the most amazing coping techniques—that is, when they’re allowed and encouraged to engage a challenge by themselves.

What’s important here is to differentiate between struggling and suffering. Suffering is agonizing. It’s pain without an end goal of benefiting from the pain. Struggle, instead, is distress with a purpose. It’s a learning process. As such, it’s crucial to development. 

Challenges benefit kids.

  • Challenges can help children learn self-soothing tools.
  • Challenges can increase frustration tolerance.
  • Children can learn to build problem-solving skills through experiencing challenges.
  • Challenges can boost self-confidence.
  • Challenges can help children develop independent thinking skills.

Knowing this, it becomes clear that half our work as parents is to soothe our own anxieties so we can more effectively help our kids—by watching from the sidelines. It’s crucial to remember we aren’t abandoning our children when we step out of the way of their development. The mom who sleep trains is not giving her child the message she no longer loves him. The dad who lets his daughter get a “C” on a test is not neglecting her education. By being a supporting, encouraging presence who trusts a kid enough to let them make mistakes and then learn from them, you are instilling more confidence in the child.

In my practice, I’ve noticed anxieties about parenting tend to fall into the same three categories. When I ask, “What are you afraid of when it comes to watching your child wrestle with a new challenge?” parents often answer, “My partner fights me about how to discipline.” Or, “It looks so easy for everyone else, so why is it so tough for me?” They also might say, “I immediately think, we’re never going to get through this.”

The first example has to do with couples issues. The key to success in parenting is presenting a united front between the parents. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. But it does mean you have to look like you agree.

It’s crucial to remember we aren’t abandoning our children when we step out of the way of their development. … By being a supporting, encouraging presence who trusts a kid enough to let them make mistakes and then learn from them, you are instilling more confidence in the child.

There are two parts to this. The first is to come up with a game plan you both can agree to. Communicate this message to your kids as coming from both of you equally. Kids can sense when parents are divided, and it’s a confusing message to them. They might think, “Maybe I have to go along with this. But then again, Mom looks really skeptical, so maybe I don’t.”

The second part is to turn to one another for help when the task is difficult. Among any two people, one will generally be more determined than the other to see a plan through. One good way to be on each other’s team is to form a plan beforehand. The night before sleep training or a new homework regime, meet with each other in private. Imagine what possible setbacks could come up and plan how you’ll handle them. Maybe the more permissive parent has to leave the room. Maybe the more hardcore one has to agree to lower expectations at first. Together, you can address roadblocks before they become fodder for arguments.

The second example—“No one else is having this problem”—fits into the category of comparisons. We worry others are doing a better job, or we hear our mom’s voice in our ear telling us how it used be done. Try to remind yourself that each family, each child, even each evening is unique. There isn’t one model that everyone can or should follow. Allow for flexibility and individuality. Remember your vision of everyone else’s family is probably a fantasy. No one is problem-free. Someone else’s child might sleep through the night easily, sure. But trust me: their parents struggle with some other challenge. Maybe the child is a picky eaters or a bed-wetter. Perhaps their childhood is problem-free but they’re rebellious as a teen.

Finally, thoughts such as “This is impossible” are illustrations of negative cognitions. They are exaggerated, worst-case-scenario notions that keep us feeling as if failure is a foregone conclusion. Changing your thoughts is part of a larger approach called cognitive therapy. But you can practice one simple strategy by identifying the words that come to you (“I can’t bear watching my child suffer”) and replacing the thought with something more palatable (“Struggle is beneficial. My son knows I’m here to support him”). As often as you’ve unconsciously repeated the negative thought (a hundred times? A thousand?), that’s how many times you’ll have to consciously replace it with the new, more comforting thought.

The truth is this practice is as much your learning process as it is your child’s. Whatever you’re working through today is one of hundreds of times you’ll have to take a deep breath and stand back as your child frets and worries about some new challenge. Rather than harming your daughter by letting her figure out how to deal with a difficult teacher, you’re handing her a priceless lesson about self-sufficiency. In other words, by soothing your anxiety, you’re giving your child a leg up on hers.

If you struggle to work through this, or any other challenge of parenthood, on your own, consider reaching out to a compassionate, qualified therapist or counselor who can offer support and guidance.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, MFTI, Parenting Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • milli

    November 19th, 2015 at 7:53 AM

    It can be a hard thing for any caring parent o take that necessary step back when you know that you have some tricks that can help your children but then you don’t want to step on that independence that you are trying so hard to create in them.

  • Terrell

    November 19th, 2015 at 12:41 PM

    I admit that I am the worst about this. My wife says to just let the kids do it and fail, but why should I let that happen when I can make life so much easier for them?

  • Rebecca

    November 19th, 2015 at 2:15 PM

    I have so many friends who need to read this.

    They spend so much of their time running aorund and doing things for their kids that I think that most of them have forgotten who they are other than so and so’s mom.

    I love my children, please don’t get me wrong but I also understand that part of my job is to let go and at times give them the freedom to make some choices of their own.
    I can’t be there for them forever so I have to teach them the things that they will need to know navigating life long after I am gone.

  • Logan

    November 20th, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    aaahhh gotta love the helicopter parents

  • Vicki

    November 20th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    Rebecca, thanks for your comment! You make a great point–we can’t always be there for our kids, so we’re doing them more of a service by letting them figure out how to do things on their own. Terrell, I know how you feel, there’s nothing harder than watching them struggle. But is making life easier for our kids all we have to offer them? Or are we supposed to train and prepare them for all life has to offer, good and bad?

  • Paula

    November 20th, 2015 at 9:51 AM

    I seriously work with a woman who I think does more for her thirty something year old children than I do for mine, and mine are teenagers!

  • rosie

    November 21st, 2015 at 6:08 AM

    My mom and dad did everything for my brother and I when we were young and that feels like such a natural thing to do with my own children. I sort of feel like this is why we have kids, to then give back to them in the same way that someone else in life has given to us.

  • reg

    November 23rd, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    But it makes me feel so guilty!
    Is dad guilt a thing like mommy guilt?

  • Tori

    November 24th, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    We are so mistaken with the things that we sometimes do with our kids. We think that the more that we do for them then the better that they will be prepared for whatever life brings to them. But in fact I think that we now see that it is the opposite, the more that we do then the less prepared that the children are to make it through life on their own. They now have these expectations that we will do everything for them, and then know how to do nothing on their own.

  • Ava

    November 25th, 2015 at 12:11 PM

    My niece is totally helpless, not because she isn’t smart but because my brother and his wife have always done everything for her. My kids are younger than she is but I am pretty positive that they are far more self sufficient than she has ever been given the chance to be because we have allowed them to try and fail. There are always things that are easier if we just do them ourselves but how is that ever going to teach your children how to do it on their own?

  • Katie

    November 27th, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    So how does everyone feel about letting the baby soothe themselves to sleep? Even when it means crying themselves to sleep? You think that this is a good thing for them, that they will not somehow feel neglected or something later on?

  • thom

    November 28th, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    Even when you let your child fail at something I think that they get a whole lot more out of doing that and learning something from it than they do if you are constantly stepping in and saving the day for them.

    I think that when you give them the chance to do it on their own, you instill in them a sense of confidence that they would not get if you do it for them.

  • Amy

    November 28th, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    Katie-I am right there with you, with young ones not wanting to sleep! With my ex husband and I now divorced, I COMPLETELY understand the need to soothe them as much as possible. It was my pediatrician who told me “You have the right to expect your 1-year old to sleep through the night” that finally allowed me to give myself permission to do it, and guess what? It took 1 night! I timed how long he cried and at 30 min, I allowed myself to go in, soothe him and put him back to bed. Later, when he woke up, I timed only 20 min, and he went back to sleep ON HIS OWN! The next time he work up, he only CRIED 10 MIN BEFORE HE WENT BACK TO SLEEP! Ask any Dr or person who has a degree to work with infants/toddlers and they will tell you that children need to learn how to self-soothe. Trust me, it’s better to happen sooner rather than later, as it’s easier on both of you😄 I don’t know the age of your child, but I do know that allowing him/her to cry him/herself to sleep will not only tire him out but it will teach the first of many self-soothing techniques to be learned. Do you feel neglected because your parents let you cry as an infant?

  • Katie

    November 29th, 2015 at 1:27 PM

    Thanks for those words Amy! I agree with what you are saying but you know there are always those people in your life who make me feel like I am a TERRIBLE parent for doing it. But don’t i deserve to have some rest too, and how can I when I am up and down all night for no real apparent reason.

  • Amy

    December 4th, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    Amen, Katie! You not only deserve to get your sleep but you absolutely need it! I feel cranky, impatient and snippy if I don’t get my sleep and that comes out, unfortunately, on the children.
    Does anyone win in that situation?
    If others are making comments to make you feel guilty about that, it makes it all the more difficult. What is more sad, to me, is how telling these comments are about THEIR issues: perhaps someone made them feel badly and they only know to continue the cycle; perhaps they are jealous of you and are trying to bring you down….
    Who knows the reason, but I beg you to remind yourself that those who love you WELL will not do this. I have said to some very close loved ones, “I know I’m a new mom and there are some things I need to figure out for myself. I appreciate your advise, and I will ask you when something comes up, but for now, please respect the way that I parent my child(ren).”
    Again, I’m going to quote my pediatrician because he is wise: “No matter what you chose to do regarding the sleep schedule, he will grow up to be a model citizen.”
    Katie-you are a loving parent trying to do what’s best for her child but also not neglect yourself. Your child will grow up to be a model citizen, not matter how you proceed, and you will remain sane in the process because you are bold enough to say that you have needs too. Thanks for reminding us all that it’s ok to meet our own needs and that sometimes we have to stand up for ourselves and our right to parent the way we feel is best.
    Best of luck and God Bless you😄

  • parentsupporthub.com

    May 4th, 2017 at 2:44 AM

    Kids need to know that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and that both are just fine. Kids need to know that sometimes they don’t deserve to win—that they aren’t the best and that their efforts weren’t as effort-y as someone else’s.

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