3 Ways To STOP Doing So Much For Your Kids (And Let Them Handle It)

Are you 'helping' or just holding them back?

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I hear this question all the time from parents: “I want to help my kid, because I see that he's struggling, but how do I help without enabling him?” 

It's a fair question, as parents tend to tend to go from one extreme to the other.

Some parents try to force their kids to do what they think is in the child's "best interest,” and then get increasingly frustrated when their child is inconsistent or doesn’t seem to want to do the work.


On the other extreme, some parents do too much for their kids. I know of a mother of a dyslexic child who did her son’s homework for him when he couldn’t keep up. (Not helping!) 

To find the middle ground that actually motivates a child to strive, first understand that you (as the parent) have two goals:

The key to accomplishing both of these goals is to set clear, reasonable, and realistic expectations for your child.

So, how do you set age-appropriate yet effective expectations? Here's a 3-step guide: 


1. Stop with the “shoulds.” 

Everywhere we look there are books and resources, teachers, and well-meaning family members telling us what our kids "should" be able to do. If we make our decisions based on what we think they should be able to do, rather than what they can do, life will be stressful — for your child and for you.

I work with parents of “complex” kids, and those kids are often 3-5 years behind their peers in some areas of development. That's an important reality to consider when setting expectations. So listen to "expert advice" with an open mind, and then make your own decisions rooted in the context of your child’s development. My best decisions always balance my knowledge, my emotions, and my intuition about the situation.

2. Meet your kids where they are.


The goal here is to figure out what your kids can do comfortably and consistently, and then raise the bar from there. Children don’t come “one size fits all” — and it takes a bit of detective work to figure out what the right level is for each unique child.

Imagine your children climbing the stairs toward independence. Instead of standing on the stair where you think he should be and trying to “drag him up,” walk down to the step where you think he truly is currently, and then help him map out a plan to progress to the next step.

For example, if your child doesn’t remember to brush his teeth on his own, but can comfortably do it when you remind him, that is the step he is on. If you choose to take aim on this issue, the next step might be to help him develop his own structure or reminder system that could replace you in the process.

3. Let go of your fear. 


Most of the time, your frustration with your child is based on some underlying fear …. If he can’t remember to brush his teeth, how will he ever get up and go to work every day? If he can’t finish his homework without a battle, how will he be able to get into the college of his choice?

Our kids all have their own trajectory. Trust that developing independence happens step by step. Stay on your child’s current step, instead of worrying about what might happen 10 years from now!

When to help ... and when not to. 

So the other side of this is knowing when to help your children, and when back off and let them figure it out for themselves. There's never one clear, fail-safe answer on this. It also depends on your child’s age and maturity. But, as a rule of thumb, consider the following:

  • Elementary age: A parent’s role is directing a child's work, and motivating the effort. You may often have to tell your kids what they should be doing and help them stay motivated to get it done.
  • Middle school: This is a major stage of transition. The goal here is to support your child while maintaining a balance of not enabling. The distinction I like to make is that if you are doing something “for” them, it could be enabling. If you are doing something with them and/or in assistance of their role, you are more likely supporting.
  • High school: The role of the parent at this level is to continue to foster independence. Consistently ask yourself how can you help your child “own” more of a given situation. Also, keep in mind, it’s a gradual process and your child might not just wake up the first day of 9th grade ready to do it all on his own. Even if he thinks he can!
  • College: Ah, that time when our kids are living on their own … Complete freedom, yes? Unfortunately, perhaps not! The parent’s role here continues to be to help your (adult) child “own” her life (and the challenges that come with it) as much as possible. While, at the same time, making sure they know you have their back — at least emotionally — if struggles arise. The point is, it’s their life, but as parents, we will likely always struggle to manage how much, or how little to get involved. 

It's a frustrating conundrum to know how much to lean in or butt out. 

Made all the more challenging because kids are rarely consistent ... needing more help one moment, and far less the next. There is no easy or 100 percent "right" answer, but hopefully I've given you some direction.  

Know that it’s a process, and focus on what you really want for your child, to help them AND to assist them in moving toward independence. And don’t forget that other goal we tend to forget — enjoy your child! They are only with you for awhile!


Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, founders of ImpactADHD.com, teach/write about practical strategies to parents of “complex” kids with ADHD and related challenges. To help your kids find the motivation to get anything done, download their free parent’s guide, The Parent’s Guide to Motivating Your Complex Child.