Step In or Step Back? How to Recognize (and Stop) Enabling
Have you ever been told that you’re coddling your child — or worse, enabling his bad behavior? You may be too close to tell. Here’s how to figure out whether you’re actually an enabler or if you’re laying the foundation for him to take control.
Are you helping your kids more than you should be? One of the challenges facing parents of children with ADHD, and all the decisions that come along with it, is knowing when to step in to help and when to step back and allow your kids to learn for themselves.
You usually have to make quick decisions when this question arises. Trying to get out the door in the morning, on the verge of being late to school, you have immediate decisions to make: Do I find his backpack and shoes? Do I bring food into the car to make sure he eats? Do I remind him to take his ADHD medication?
If that’s not hard enough, you are aware of the watchful (and judging) eyes of spouses, family, and friends that suggest you should be handling things differently. As a parent of a complex child, there is always someone around who thinks that you’re not doing it right — or enabling your child’s poor behavior. How do you know when or when not to help?
Shed the Shoulds
The first step is to know your child and his or her challenges well — so well that you can trust your instincts in the heat of the moment.
No matter how long it has been since your child was diagnosed, “shedding the shoulds” starts with parent management training, which is widely recommended by the medical community as a primary treatment for children with ADHD. When parents understand the nature of their children’s challenges, they will respond appropriately. With training, parents can determine when their kids are struggling and need support, and when they need encouragement or accountability.
It’s true that your child “should” eat a good breakfast before school. But if getting breakfast on her own comes at the expense of the whole family being late every day, or of damaged relationships due to frustration, is breakfast time the right time to hold the line?
Parenting is the gradual process of transferring ownership of our children’s activities and behaviors over to them. Step by step, we want to foster their resilience and their sense of autonomy. We do this when we teach them to tie their shoes, pour a bowl of cereal, make plans with a friend, or get started on their homework.
But for kids with ADHD, these basic skills don’t come easily. The teaching process is going to take longer. So how do we know when to let go? When our kids are not doing what we ask, bouncing off the walls, or failing to respond appropriately or respectfully to what’s expected of them, are there guidelines that can help us?
The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, there are four phases that define the transition of ownership in parenting (see “Learning the Phases,” below) that make a useful framework. On the other hand, we have to determine where we are in each of the phases — this will be different for each child, depending on his strengths and challenges, and even on the time of day or year.
Kids with ADHD develop somewhat erratically; they are advanced in some areas, immature in others. They may be in Phase 3 when getting ready for soccer, but in Phase 1 at starting their homework.
Are you enabling? Are you supporting? It doesn’t matter what Aunt Ida thinks, or the neighbor down the street, or, possibly, even your spouse. What matters is what you think.
If you are slowly and consistently transferring ownership to your child, one moment of independence at a time, then you are probably providing a healthy environment and teaching your child to ask for and accept appropriate help. That is the secret to success — for everyone.
Learning the Phases
There are four phases that parents go through when learning to let go and hand off the baton of responsibility. Typically, the first three phases happen over the course of 18 years. However, for our kids, who are delayed in some aspects of their development, it usually takes a few extra years to achieve Phase 4 — the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Here’s how to use the four phases in dealing with homework:
|PHASE 1: Motivate Effort/Direct Work
When kids are young, parents direct everything they do and encourage active participation.
|Examples of Phase 1 parenting strategies:
1. Reward charts with positive reinforcement
2. Homework folders to help parents decide when to do homework and/or direct what to do
3. Celebrating successes, large and small
“Tonight you have math and spelling to do. Let’s have a snack and do your homework before dinner, so we can play a game after dinner.”
|PHASE 2: Motivate Ownership/Model Organization
Parents start to encourage their child to take responsibility, and create systems that will help them be successful.
|Examples of Phase 2 parenting strategies:
1. Choose language that reinforces ownership (“your homework” instead of “our homework”)
2. Re-teach organizational skills your child may have missed at an earlier age
3. Share examples of how you organize things
“You can do your homework before or after dinner tonight. When do you want to do it, and where? What do you want to do to reward yourself when you’re done?”
|PHASE 3: Transfer Ownership/Support Organization
Parents collaborate with their child to choose areas for improvement when the child wants to take on more responsibility.
|Examples of Phase 3 parenting strategies:
1. “Scribing” for your child’s homework planning
2. Agreeing to “check in” at certain times and being a body double on request
3. Work on changing one thing at a time
“What’s your plan for getting your homework done tonight? Is there anything you think you’re going to want my help on?”
|PHASE 4: Empower, Champion/Troubleshoot
Parents respond to and celebrate their child’s successes, and encourage them to continue to seek help and support, as needed.
|Examples of Phase 4 parenting strategies:
1. Ask helpful, constructive questions
2. Be a sounding board for problem-solving and think through strategies when your child asks
3. Champion and encourage autonomous decision-making without requiring permission
“How are things going with your school work? Have your systems been working for you? Are you struggling with anything? Let me know if you’d like some help thinking about how to make things easier for yourself.”