Your teenage son once again left his dirty clothes strewn all over the house. Yet, instead of nagging him about picking them up for the umpteenth time, you simply do it yourself.
You teenage daughter constantly forgets her homework, lunch money, and sports gear. Rather than let her be without, you run back to school despite your own busy schedule.
It’s easier, isn’t it?
Easier than getting into an argument with your son over his messiness and ruin his and your day.
And easier than seeing your daughter distraught because she fails a class, ashamed that she has to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or disappointed because she can’t participate in her favorite sport.
You’re just trying to spare them and yourself negative experiences, right?
But, could it be that you’re actually doing too much for your teen?
Could it be that, over the years, your habit of jumping in or not making them deal with unpleasant things has caused them to learn helplessness?
Learned Helplessness – How Does It Happen?
It usually starts without parents even realizing it. Their young child doesn’t know how to do something yet or not properly, and the parent jumps in to do it for them.
Often, they may do it because it’s just faster than waiting for the child to do it themselves. Eventually, though, it can become a pattern—a habit. And it gets carried on over the course of the child’s whole life.
It’s easy to get stuck in this pattern. After all, it makes you feel needed, and your child may need you to do things for them.
That’s especially so when you have a child who has been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder or a learning disability. They may really need your help. And wouldn’t you be a bad parent if you’d allow them to struggle when they need your support?
You may reason that it’s your responsibility to help them out. That it’s natural for you to do more than what is the norm.
The problem is, though, that you’re not doing your child a favor in the long run, even if they have a disability. Obviously, you should help them when appropriate, but you shouldn’t overdo it, just because you’re anxious. Otherwise, by the time, your child has grown into a teen, they’re completely reliant on you doing things for them that they can absolutely do for themselves.
And when you’re stuck in that pattern, it may be hard for you to give up that role and, often, your teen may not want you to stop either.
What Can You Do to Reverse the Problem of Learned Helplessness?
If you realize that your boundaries are blurred and your teen relies way too much on you doing things for them, you can take the following steps to turn the situation around.
1. Pay attention to how you contribute to the problem
Understand the situations in which you most likely do too much for your teen. Often, that may be when your own anxiety runs high.
Observe your patterns and counteract them. Stop thinking that jumping in for your teen and rescuing or mediating for them is a kindness. It’s not. They have the responsibility to find solutions to their own problems.
2. Pull back, but don’t detach completely
When you’re ready to do less for your teen, just start with doing one thing differently. But be cautious. Don’t go from one extreme to the other—from doing everything for them to totally withdrawing.
Instead, make changes in a way that is loving and shows your teen that you’re still on their side. Pull back, but don’t detach completely. Be a responsible parent, but don’t rescue your teen. Help, but don’t take over fixing their problems.
3. Don’t fall for the helpless act
Be prepared that when you start pulling back, it will most likely cause some issues at first. After all, you’re trying to change a pattern that has been in place for a long time. Your child may resist.
Beware. Don’t fall for the whining and the helpless act your teen may put on to get you to fall back into your old role of doing things for them. You have to resist even if deep down your anxiety leaves you with the burning urge to step in.
4. Don’t let your teen make you feel guilty
If whining and acting helpless doesn’t work to change you back, your teen may resort to making you feel guilty. In fact, they may really put you to the test, even to the point of getting sick or into some trouble.
This can be a really tough phase for you that can make you feel very uncomfortable. The best way to get through it is to keep reminding yourself that your teen will have to learn to do things for themselves because nobody will do it for them later when you’re not around anymore.
5. Own up to your own vulnerabilities
None of this will be easy to handle, of course. Watching your child struggle will most likely cause painful emotions to surface. You may feel angry, anxious, and depressed.
Understand that owning up to your own vulnerabilities and insecurities is part of the overall change to a healthier pattern between you and your teen. Accept that, occasionally, you may feel helpless and at a loss. It’s all part of being a parent.
Clearly, your teen is capable and competent enough to take care of many things in their lives by themselves. So, once they’ve learned how to do something, it’s their responsibility, not yours.
If you find your teen has learned helplessness because you’ve been stepping in too much for them and you don’t know exactly how to make the above-mentioned changes or you’re not sure how to talk to your child about the fact that you need to step back, you may want to consider professional guidance from an experienced family therapist.