How to Support a Child With Challenges Without Fostering Dependency

Parents of neurotypical children simply take it for granted that a school-aged child can get dressed on his own, feed himself at mealtimes, and complete other age-appropriate tasks. For the parents of children with learning disabilities or mental health issues, on the other hand, the normal progression from helpless infant to self-reliant adult is less clear. Sometimes these kids really do need help with basic things, but there’s a fine line between providing support and enabling dependency.

Remember that all children—even those who have difficulties—will try to opt out of doing things they don’t like and push the limits of what they can get away with. Ironically, this is a good thing; it means your child is healthy enough that she wants to explore and define the world around her. However, when parents don’t know how to differentiate “can’t” from “won’t,” they run the risk of limiting their child’s growth. Defining the role of support, and learning how to identify when it’s needed, will help you nurture your child without coddling her.


What is Support?

Support is, in a nutshell, the act of helping your child find ways to cope and rebound from setbacks. Its end goal is to engender resilience, which will eventually allow your child to bounce back on her own, without parental help. This is where support and enabling differ profoundly: The reason why enabling must be avoided isn’t one of principle (i.e., coddling isn’t bad because it will make your child act “spoiled”). Instead, it’s harmful because it erodes resilience. When you coddle your child, you send the message that she isn’t capable of caring for herself and making her own choices. This undermines her confidence and sense of autonomy, making it harder for her to grow into an independent adult.

When supporting your child, you should take a moment to acknowledge her difficulties so that she knows you care and empathize with how she feels. You should then discuss the problem with her and suggest ways for her to overcome the obstacles at hand and deal with any feelings of anxiety she has. (Kids with learning disabilities are often particularly scared of failure, and this can cause them to claim they “can’t” do something when in reality they are just frightened of being humiliated.) If there are any ways you can “help her to help herself,” you should offer your assistance—but make sure that assistance doesn’t replace her need for action. Your child needs to be part of the problem-solving process in order to feel empowered by it.

Supportive gestures can include snuggling your child, providing sensory comforts (like a favourite beverage or cuddly toy), teaching her deep breathing and positive visualization exercises, and waiting somewhere close by when she’s trying something new that she’s anxious about. Note that learning about your child’s disorder is also an excellent way to facilitate supportive behaviour. The more you know about why your child struggles with certain things, the easier it will be to think of coping strategies. You should also ask your child’s mental health professional for advice on how to create a supportive home and learning environment for your child.

Some other important supportive tools are outlined below:

  • Make sure your child has a lot of structure in her life. Your child should have a stable daily routine, a simple list of household rules she can understand, and a system of consequences and rewards in place that reinforce good behaviour.
  • Take the time to praise your child, even for small things she does right. Kids with learning challenges are apt to feel like they “mess up” all of the time, and this can deprive them of the confidence they need to tackle things alone. Noticing what your child does well—even if it’s just making her bed on her own or taking up her plate without being asked—can combat this tendency towards negative thinking.
  • Advocate for your child at school. If your child is provided with a learning environment that allows her to flourish despite her difficulties, she’ll feel far more capable and self-assured. Poor performance at school is usually the primary reason why kids with learning disabilities or mental illness start to think badly about themselves.
  • Seek professional help for yourself and your family, not just your child. Because we’re so close to our kids, it can be difficult to see their problems objectively and handle them rationally. Family therapy can provide you with the unbiased input you need to support your child effectively without over-protecting her.
  • Keep context in mind. Poor sleep, skipped meals, stress, and other factors can hinder your child’s ability to cope. Knowing how to identify these issues will help you determine when you may be asking too much of your child, even if the task at hand usually isn’t an issue for her.


How to Identify Enabling

Enabling is defined as the act of reinforcing behaviour that is ultimately unhelpful to your child. Most parents have nothing but good intentions when they inadvertently enable their child: They usually want to protect her from fear, sadness, pain, embarrassment, failure, etc. Unfortunately, when we prevent our kids from making mistakes and taking risks, we deprive them of important lessons. Kids who never take risks don’t learn how to manage risk, for example, and kids who aren’t allowed to overcome their errors never learn that messing up isn’t the end of the world.

Enabling usually takes one of the following forms:

  • Sheltering your child from all uncomfortable situations, even important ones (like going to school).
  • Protecting your child from her mistakes, e.g., doing her homework for her or covering for her when she does something wrong.
  • Speaking on your child’s behalf instead of letting her express herself. (Refusing to let your child argue with you in a respectful way is also a form of enabling.)
  • Letting your child break or ignore house rules.


Finding Balance

As a final note, remember that it’s important to let yourself be imperfect, too. There will be days when you accidentally push your child too hard and days when you inadvertently let her get away with something. However, the more you get to know your child and practice your discernment skills, the more accurate your observations will become.

You should also be aware that many situations don’t fall neatly into boxes (like either/or, can or can’t, genuinely struggling or trying to push boundaries). Don’t expect yourself to read your child’s mind; instead, just aim for the ideal balance of validating your child’s emotions while still encouraging her to overcome her difficulties. If you communicate effectively with your child, she’ll probably help you find a middle ground that spurs progress without expecting perfection.

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