When Enabling Children Becomes Disabling: How Trying to Keep Children Happy Only Makes Them Miserable
Seeing your child upset can be disheartening. As parents, we want to see our children happy and experiencing a lot of good things in life. This alone is not a bad thing; but when it becomes a primary goal, you are inevitably raising a child that will never be happy. Kids know what they want, but they don’t always know what they need. When children are spoiled or never given the opportunity to work through struggles, they won’t be given one of the most important skills in adulthood–the ability to self-regulate. You know those adults: They are the ones who expect the world to revolve around them, come to work when they feel like it, explode over minute things, and never seem happy. In order to have children who are content, work hard and respect authority, the expectations need to be set in childhood. If this is what you want for your children, then consider the following:
Rescue your child each time s/he is upset: Learning to regulate behaviors and emotions when upset is taught during times of distress for children. Allowing a child to cool down in a room or while playing quietly helps teach them how to calm down. Putting them in front of the television, giving them what they want, or promising a snack or new toy only teaches a child unhealthy coping mechanisms. Do you find yourself buying a new toy just to keep the peace each time you enter a store?
Make excuses for your child: If your child forgot their homework, called another child a name, or skipped school, making an excuse for this behavior only enables. Hold your child accountable for the mistakes made, and see it as an opportunity for growth. Messing up in life is inevitable–owning up to it and managing it appropriately is important.
Overcompensate: Do you find yourself driving a certain route home, offering a sugary treat each night to ensure an easy bedtime, going to a certain restaurant, making a certain meal, or offering rewards for doing something that should be an expectation? Walking on eggshells to avoid a blowup is preventing your child from learning that s/he can trust the adults to help find calm in a storm. Your child doesn’t want this much control, and will be happier if he knows the expectations.
Always break up sibling fights: Sure, there are times when fights need to be broken up if there is threat of injury; but allowing children to argue, get upset, and work through this process can be very helpful for learning to resolve conflict.
Do everything for them: Following your children around and picking up after them, doing and putting away their laundry, and expecting them to do no chores will not provide learning opportunities to do things out of necessity, rather than desire. This is also important in developing competence in organizing, self-care, and other executive functioning skills essential in life.
Allow your children to struggle: This will build resilience when they face challenging tasks in the future.
Say ‘No’: Saying ‘yes’ to everything your child asks doesn’t allow opportunities for disappointment, and sets an expectation of always getting what she wants. This is not reality.
Rest in a good cry: Hearing your children cry can be tough, and the inner parent can desire to rescue them from it. However, crying can be very regulating; and many times your child will feel better about the situation, have a better outlook, and/or be more willing to talk things through afterwards.
Allow failure: Little moments of failure are great opportunities for learning and growth. If you crack an egg too hard and it spills all over, you’ll be much more likely to learn from that than if someone stops you and protects you from making that mistake. If your child doesn’t want to get work done, allow them not to do it; but make sure consequences follow, such as no television until their room is clean.
Label emotions: Helping your child understand the emotions she is experiencing can be helpful in knowing how to cope with them. For example, “I see you are feeling a little anxious about this. Why don’t you take a little break and come back to it.” Or “You seem very upset about this. Go to your room and you can come out when you are feeling calmer.” Giving kids time to think and rest in a quiet environment can be very helpful, and is not something that is very available in our fast paced society. Gift them this time whether they think they want it or not.
Create boundaries: Without boundaries, fish wouldn’t survive. It might look better on the other side, but in reality boundaries create much more comfort and stability than we realize. Kids don’t need to be on electronics all day; outside playtime is important; bedtimes should be set and followed; hold some expectations around food, limiting sugar and expecting a well balanced diet.
Expect them to do chores: Having expectations and holding to them will help your child to become responsible, see work that needs to be done, and learn how to organize space and time, which helps for understanding that work needs to be done before play. Doing chores also creates competence to do work and be successful with it. Ever see that kid who goes off to college and comes home with all the whites turned pink? Yeah, that can be prevented. However, he probably learned from that mistake!
Loving your children means much more than making them happy all the time. Discipline, expectations, and boundaries are things your children won’t think they want; but in the end, will make for a much more guidable, resilient, competent, and respectful adult. You may even be thanked for it some day!
Article written by Michelle VanderHeide, MSW, social worker at Horizons Developmental Resource Center.
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