How much help is too much help to provide your young adult child? Or to ask an alternate question, when is helping not actually helping at all? The well-intentioned parents who seek to, in the short-term, rescue their children from failure, disappointment, or even the loss of status amongst peers, can have impactful repercussions for the long-term. The instances of failure children and adolescents experience can serve to provide the foundation for their motivation, confidence, and sense of resiliency as they grow. Stepping in to save children from experiencing failures also keeps them from a) recognizing they have the ability to fail, b) the empowering practice of picking themselves back up after failure, and c) the invaluable understanding that life does not end because of or following failure. They are also curtailed in the firsthand experience of regulating their emotions and cultivating resiliency when facing failure. Some guiding principles in determining if help would indeed be helpful is to ask the child to identify what would be helpful to them, or to articulate the specific nature of what they are struggling with. This helps them strategize and problem-solve. A second component could include silently posing the question to yourself: “Can I NOT help my child right now?” or “What is the minimal amount of help I might provide them?”, which can be a difficult skill to master.
Allow me to translate these concepts into a handy analogy. Perhaps you can recall the time when you were first learning to swim. In my personal experience my father, perhaps not unlike many fathers of his generation, wanted his daughters to be able to compete on a swim team and so he literally tossed me into the pool when I was months old. He claims he never considered placing floaties on me, because he recognized that floatation devices prevent a person from experiencing his or her own buoyancy and inhibit a swimmer’s ability to master their stroke. He had to keep his own anxieties about my safety at bay in order to allow me to learn to swim, or indeed, to risk failing at swimming. He never concerned himself with the notion that I might swallow chlorinated water, he was secure in the knowledge from his own experience that all swimmers swallow a fair amount of water while getting their bearings in the pool. It ultimately takes a beginning swimmer a handful of times of failing before they are able to keep their heads above water. What my dad was consistently willing to do was join me at the pool to provide support and encouragement and to be on standby if I was struggling. In those moments when I struggled and sometimes panicked, his direction became, “Get to the wall”, which was a far cry from jumping in after me or siccing a lifeguard on me to pull me to dry land. He wasn’t looking to shut down the progress I was making toward self-sufficiency, the ultimate goal was for me to be a regular swimmer and to consistently improve my skills and my comfort in the water. His willingness to accompany me throughout my journey allowed me to recognize that I had support when I needed it. He knew that the difference between allowing me to struggle, i.e. saving me from a few gulps of water, and stepping in for me meant that I would have to learn to resource myself. His sense of ease that I would be just fine informed my own sense of confidence that I could rise to the expectation he had set before me. And you know, to this day I still swim, and sometimes I still even swallow some pool water, but I always know I am capable of getting myself to the wall.
Vanessa Nering, MA, LPC Intern, is supervised by Elizabeth Devine, MEd, LPC-S and is a client advocate for Innovation360 Austin. In addition to providing support for individuals and families working through issues pertaining to mental health disorders and substance abuse, Vanessa provides individual counseling sessions for teenagers and their loved ones and is currently taking new clients.
Stay Healthy, Chaps!
-Kristi, Katie, and Elizabeth