Break the Enabling Cycle

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


When kids have learning, attention and executive-function challenges, parents often end up doing too much • Use these guidelines to transition from “enabling” to “abling” your child on their road to independence

Your job as a parent is to empower your kids to become responsible adults who can navigate the world independently. School psychologist David P. Sylvestro refers to this as “planned obsolescence”—doing a good enough job guiding, shaping, and preparing your kids so they don’t need you anymore.

When kids have learning difficulties, however, your relationship with them becomes more complicated. You watch them struggle to plan, organize, focus, manage time, tolerate frustration, modulate emotions, and assess their abilities. “It’s easy to respond by becoming your kid’s frontal lobe,” says Sylvestro, “taking on the executive function skills they lack.

You become the CEO of their day—managing schedules, making appointments, checking homework, monitoring long-term projects, editing papers, intervening with teachers and coaches, etc.

As a consequence, your child becomes dependent on the accommodations you’re making for them to the detriment of their own ability to more forward.

In a typical scenario, you forget to set reasonable parameters, establish achievable goals, and adjust the responsibilities your child can assume. Simply put, says Sylvestro, you fail to “teach your kids to fish”—to empower them to learn the skills they need to get through the day independently with their self-esteem intact.

Principles That Empower

Sylvestro recommends the following guidelines to help you break the enabling cycle:

1. Communicate and live by the values of responsibility, accountability and independence. Use these words as touchstones throughout the day. “Give your kids a responsibility, ask them to meet it, and tell them how you’ll be holding them accountable,” advises Sylvestro.

Example: When you request they put away their clothes, say “I’m going to see how you hung up your clothes. Why don’t you go upstairs first and check that they’re put away; you know what I’ll be looking for.” When they step up to the plate, give positive feedback: “There were times when I had a hard time relying on you. But you just demonstrated a different level of responsibility and I appreciate that.”

2. Create realistic, achievable expectations based on where your child is developmentally. “You might be asking your kids to do things they aren’t ready to do yet,” says Sylvestro. Don’t presume they should be old enough to behave a certain way just because their peers can. Within their areas of challenge, it’s safe to assume they’re functioning at one-third below the age of their peers and consider what is a reasonable expectation for them.

Example: Your intuitive and curious 9-year-old may have executive function skills closer to those of a 6-year-old; and your creative, artistic 18-year-old may be functioning closer to a 12-year-old organizationally. To promote independence, you will need to accept that developmental lag, teach them life skills little by little, provide supportive feedback as they practice, and gradually back away as their abilities increase.

3. Select target skills that are small and easily achievable. Kids become self-reliant in baby steps and need you to be part of their process.

Example: Clearly and succinctly state a do-able goal: “Sweep the kitchen” (as opposed to “clean the house”). Review the task calmly: “Watch how I use the broom and dustpan; then I’ll watch how you do it.”  When the stakes are low, allow them to do it their way. Focus on things about the task they did well and celebrate their achievements, even the small ones. You can always show them how to sweep again later, but you can’t take back harsh criticisms.

4. Acknowledge effort and progress as much as successful completion. Kids like when you acknowledge achievements, but they really like when you notice perseverance and improvement. Because their typical daily performance is inconsistent and their executive function skills are weak, it often takes many tries to accomplish their goals. Whatever the task, view it as a process rather than a single performance.

Example: Take every opportunity to let your child feel that you get them and understand what they’re trying to do. Encourage and praise them along their path, focusing on the “cans” rather than the “cannots” and celebrating the steps they’ve taken to move towards ownership. 

 5. Help your child learn from—and get over— mistakes and failures. When your child comes up short, stay positive. Don’t call them names or focus on the whys and hows of what they didn’t do. They feel bad enough without you losing your temper. Let them know their performance was unacceptable and discuss the situation calmly in an effort to come up with a solution for going forward, always encouraging them to find a solution that will work for them.

Example: Let’s say your child, a talented musician, fails a science test because he didn’t study. Lay the groundwork, based on the specific circumstances: “Sometimes, we let our successes in one area affect our preparation and performance in another. Because you’re a quick learner when it comes to music, maybe you figured you didn’t need to study your science facts.” Next, collaborate on a plan: “You and your teacher both know you want to do better. What do you think that would take? How can I support you? Let’s talk about what you could do differently to improve on your next science exam and who could help with that.” Finally, encourage them to persevere in finding what works best for them. 

This article is based on a webinar, Encouraging Responsibility and Independence: The Power of Positive Communication, by David P. Sylvestro, MA, CSP, a school psychologist who specializes in working with kids with attention and learning challenges. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET(CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar.

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