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Seeing our kids struggle can be scary. As parents we often find ourselves in situations where we believe we have the answer to our kids problems. In these moments it can feel natural to jump in and ‘help’ our child by taking over and fixing things. We may feel that we are fulfilling our role as their parent and protector. But is that really our role, to protect and to fix? Depending on our child’s age and developmental level you could definitely argue that we do have the responsibility to keep our kids safe and free from harm or danger. 

Navigating this line can be tricky. It is sometimes referred to as one of the paradox’s of parenting: how to love our kids enough to instill a sense of safety and closeness while at the same time give them enough opportunity to make mistakes and be able to learn and grow from life’s challenges – when to jump in and take over and when to stand back and allow them to struggle. 

A common theme that I see in my practice with families and individuals is that too often we as parents are doing too much and not giving our children the opportunity to experience and learn for themselves. Maybe we sense that what they are about to do is just too dangerous or we sense their emotions running high and believe they need us to soothe them. When they were little we would swoop in and remove the Lego from their mouth or catch them just before they bonk their head. These experiences early in parenthood of caring for our kids and keeping them safe can feel highly satisfying and rewarding. It creates a positive feedback loop that is reinforced each time we jump to the rescue. We feel like we are fulfilling our role as their caregiver and safety net. It can be difficult as they grow older and more capable to step back and allow them to skin their knee or to see them hurting and uncomfortable.

Today’s technology reinforces this pattern. We start with the video baby monitor above their crib. We then throw a smart watch on their wrist so we can call them anytime. We can monitor from work who is going in and out of the house and who they are hanging out with via the doorbell camera and other tracking gadgets we have in their phones. We micromanage their internet use, video game time, and check their grades in real time online. With so many opportunities to hover, step in, and take over, we can become overwhelmed very quickly with just what our role and responsibility really is as a parent and when it might be appropriate to step back and let them take the lead in different areas of their lives. 

While it can feel comfortable as a parent to feel like we are in control of what is going on in every aspect of our kids lives, when we insert ourselves and assume control, the message we are sending our kids is that they are not capable and up to the task that is in front of them. As our kids develop and mature they are ready for more and more independence and responsibility. Sometimes the thing that gets in the way is that we as parents are not emotionally ready to give them that independence and responsibility. We hang on just a little longer… and a little longer… and then become frustrated when our child is not at the level of maturity we hoped they would be when they are graduating and launching (or not) into life. 

This is not black and white. Each child and each family dynamic is unique. I am not accusing parents of being incompetent. I am really accusing parents of loving their kids too much…kind of. A college professor of mine used to say, “We are all doing the best we can under the circumstances as we see them.” Sometimes the lens we see through as a parent can be foggy and distorted because we care about our kids so much. That is not something to be ashamed of, rather something to be aware of. This can inform us on how to handle our emotional reactions in the moment and choose to respond differently.

Empowering our kids to work through their problems and to become comfortable with being uncomfortable is ultimately how we will prepare them to be confident, capable, healthy individuals. This is a process.  The first step in this process is becoming self aware. A common question I pose for my clients is this: Is our drive to jump in and help our kids more about their discomfort or our own discomfort?  Are they really not capable of meeting their teacher’s deadline and need us to jump in, or are we too uncomfortable with our child having to stay up late to finish their essay or worse, get a bad grade? We often work really hard to establish fabricated rules and consequences within our home only to save our children from the natural consequences of life that could have been an impactful learning experience. 

We don’t expect our 8 year old to have the emotional maturity of our 12 year old and the responsibilities we ask of each child will be very different. We should however be asking more and more of our kids and stepping in less and less as a parent with each developmental year. This fosters our children developing a healthy and stable identity and sends the message, “You can do this. We believe in you.” It also creates a healthy parent-child boundary that informs our kids on how much they should be depending upon others and motivates them to build their own talents and skills. Too often, and with good and loving intentions, we try to build our children up through affirmations when we could be using the progressive steps of life to teach them how capable, powerful, and worthy they really are. Too often we do too much and work harder not smarter in our role as a parent. A colleague of mine once shared with me, “Good parenting has to be good for parents too.” Lets love our kids enough to let them struggle and grow. Lets love ourselves enough to progressively take the responsibility of our child’s choices off of our own back and allow them to create a life and identity for themselves. It’s a win-win. 

If you find yourself struggling to navigate through this process of how much to expect of your kids and how to empower them in healthy ways, reach out to us. We’d love to help however we can. It takes a village. Call today!

Brandon Andrus, LCSW