Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

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If your child seems to be under functioning you might be contributing by over functioning for him.

Your teen leaves his dirty clothes all over the house. Instead of getting into another fight with him or nagging him to pick them up, you do it for him. It’s easier, right?

Your daughter with ADD is having problems completing her science project. She can’t seem to focus and complains that it’s boring and too difficult. After she goes to sleep, you finish it for her. After all, you don’t want her to fail.

"If a parent's emotional needs are met through their child, essentially they’re tying her shoes for her every step of the way."

We all “over–function” in our relationships at times, particularly with our kids. And we often start without even realizing it. Let’s say your toddler knows how to tie her shoes, but you tie them for her anyway, because it’s faster—and it becomes a habit. Or you run back to school when your 13–year–old son, who never remembers anything, forgets his homework again. Or your young adult daughter despairs because she was laid off from her first job and you jump in with advice and try to “fix” the situation without listening to what she has to say first. When you get stuck in a role of doing too much, you might find it hard to give up—and often, those around you might not want you to stop!

It’s easy to get stuck in this role because you feel needed, people rely on you and are impressed with how much you do. But understand that over–functioning isn’t just a simple desire to be helpful or an annoying habit to overcome. Look at it this way: if you’re always focused on everybody else, it’s a way to not focus on yourself. Over–functioning is the way we’ve learned to manage our own anxiety by overdoing, just like your under–functioning child has learned to manage stress by underdoing. This turns into a problem when it becomes a fixed pattern in your family.

So for example, let’s say your 23–year–old son sleeps all day, parties all night and won’t look for work, but you let him live under your roof without paying rent or asking him to leave. You find yourself waiting on him hand and foot. Maybe you're going along with this because you're avoiding the discomfort of a confrontation. But the question to ask yourself is, "Is this in my child's best interests or in mine?" Are you helping your child, or are you teaching your child to be helpless?

Is My Child an “Under–functioner”?

I once worked with a couple who always over–functioned for their child, doing things for her that she could do herself. This daughter always skated through classes because the parents did a lot of her homework. She did not learn how to rely on her own abilities, fall and pick herself back up when she failed, take the necessary risks, develop the ability to think for herself, or try things she might not succeed in doing. Her parents could not tolerate their own anxiety about the uncertainty of their daughter's performance or the pain of watching her struggle. By over-functioning for her, they inadvertently robbed her of the skills and practice necessary to develop competence and mastery in her life. In middle school, she started hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing drugs and drinking. She didn't make it through college and is still living with her parents, who are still taking care of her. Needless to say, they’re really burnt out.

The bottom line is that if a parent’s emotional needs are met through their child, essentially they’re tying her shoes for her every step of the way.

If you have a child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or a behavioral disorder, it gives you even more of a reason to do too much for them. It may even feel as if it’s expected and natural to over–focus on your child. But understand that it’s not really doing them any favors in the long run, because they’re not learning how to do things for themselves. And one day, your child will need to go out into the world and function as an adult. Of course, it's important to understand their disability and help them when appropriate, but try not to let your anxiety compel you to overdo for them and underdo for yourself. When that happens, you run the risk of ending up angry, resentful and burned out.

What do adult under–functioners look like? Under–functioners are skilled in the art of “learned helplessness.” They have quite literally learned to be helpless, because someone was always there to pick up the pieces for them. They often act irresponsibly, aren’t able to handle uncomfortable emotions well, float without goals, become ill a lot, can tend to become addicted to substances, ask for advice when they need to figure things out for themselves and get others to always help them. They will often search out a partner who will take care of their needs and pick up where their parents left off. And keeping a job is hard for under–functioners, because they’re always looking for someone to swoop in and rescue them. For many people who were raised this way, the world is a scary place—and instead of venturing out and making a life for themselves, they choose to stay home with mom and dad indefinitely.

Am I Doing Too Much?

If you’re doing too much for your child, you will eventually feel burned out and put upon. You can determine if you are an over-functioner if you tend to move in quickly with advice, think you know what’s best, not only for yourself but for others, have a low threshold for your child’s pain and don’t allow him to struggle with his own problems. You might have difficulty sharing your own vulnerability and spend more time focusing on others’ goals than your own. The people around you probably think of you as always reliable and together.

You might not see it as a problem until you start to burn out. Understand that over–functioning and under–functioning are a “circular relationship pattern” because these two roles feed off of each other. You may feel over responsible for your child, directing his moods, controlling his decisions and micro–managing his social life. In this way, you unwittingly encourage your child to be passive in life and become an under–functioner. When this happens, he begins to rely on you to do all the things he should be doing for himself. And you think, "He needs me. I can't just let him drown."

Are You in Your Child’s “Box”?

I talk a lot about “getting into your child’s box,” and why we should avoid doing so. This means stepping over your own boundaries or your child’s—or letting him step over yours. You’re getting into a space that actually belongs to him and not to you. Why do we do this? The truth is, we get in there to calm ourselves down, not because it’s in the best interests of our child. Some typical ways you may invade your child’s boundaries would be to constantly hover, treat him as if he knows less than he does, and have his success define you. When you get into your child’s box, you’re trying to rescue, protect, and fix and doing for them what they can already do for themselves. You tend to believe that without your efforts, they wouldn’t be able to succeed.

Let’s say you feel your child relies on you too much and you’re concerned that she’s way too dependent on you. You have been in her box for a very long time. What should you do?

Why staying out of your child’s “box” is the key to better parenting.

1) Recognize that you are doing too much, particularly when anxiety is high. Own it. Stop thinking that over–functioning is a virtue and change your part of the pattern by not rescuing, fixing, mediating, or lecturing. You have to be an observer of the pattern. Pay attention to your contribution to the problem and make a conscious effort to take responsibility for only what belongs to you.

At this stage, it’s less about pulling back and more about observing the pattern that you see in your family and thinking about a plan of action. So the next time your daughter comes to you asking your advice on how to handle a difficult situation, you change your patterned response of taking control and telling her what to do. Instead of immediately giving advice, you might plan to say, “I don’t know, I would have to think about that.” Stop being a “Mr. Fix–it” and hand your child back the responsibility to struggle to find her own answers and solutions.

2) Don’t let “changeback” derail you. Don’t be surprised to find that when you do stop your part of the pattern, your children may try to test you and change you back by making you feel guilty, getting sick, and under–functioning more. This is called “changeback,” and it’s basically your child’s reaction to the change he sees in you. Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable—and when you stop doing so much for your child, he’ll have to start doing more for himself. While he will likely test you to see if he can get you to take on his responsibilities, remember that staying in your own box is what’s best for both of you in the long run.

Read the rest of the steps and the conclusion of the article: http://www.empoweringparents.com/Learned-Helplessness-Are-You-Doing-Too-Much-for-Your-Child.php#ixzz1xReuYF5x

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.
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