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Support vs. Enabling: When We Protect Too Much 
April 1st, 2019

We all love our children. We all want to do what is best for them, protect them, help them to succeed and ensure nothing bad happens to them. We need to find a balance, however, between support and enabling. Many parents ask me what the difference is, especially when I am working with teens (or adults) who are experiencing problems with drugs or alcohol. The basic difference is that support is a “two-way street,” while enabling is a “one-way street.”

When we support our children, there is an unwritten contract that each of us has a responsibility to perform, and that as long as one person does what they have agreed to, the other will respond in kind. For example, you may tell your teen “as long as you don’t use drugs or alcohol, we will provide you with a vehicle to drive.” If they demonstrate compliance, then they get to drive. If, however, they experiment and use, and we give them second and third chances, or are unable or unwilling to put up with their upset and anger, and continue to let them drive, we are enabling them. In other words, our behavior is actually strengthening the behavior which we want to avoid.

In previous articles, I have written about the value of limits, consequences and follow-through, and enabling is not enforcing limits and not following through with consequences. Some parents are determined to provide too much support. We have all heard the term “helicopter parenting,” which describes parents who hover over their children, and are over focused on them, often taking too much responsibility for their successes or failures. Newer terms include “lawnmower parent,” and “bulldozer parent.” Such behavior generally emanates from a good, caring, loving place, though it may be fueled by one’s own unfulfilled dreams and regrets, and living one’s life through their children. The helicopter parent is so concerned that their child will not find their own way that they intervene in things like teacher selection, playing time in sports, closely monitoring school work, over-assisting in projects and selecting children’s friends for them. We have come to a place in our society where we are afraid to let our children feel disappointment, uncertainty and failure. In reality, these are often important life lessons which help children grow and gain self-esteem. Of course, our role as parents is to protect our children from danger and severe consequences, but over protection can have negative impact.

When we do too much for our children, the message we may be sending to them is that they are not capable of achieving those things themselves. Although the results may be positive, in regards to things like grades, their self-esteem does not improve and grow. In order for self-esteem and self-confidence to improve, one must benefit from the results of their efforts and take pride in their achievements. Otherwise, results not earned can often lead to what is called “the imposter syndrome,” which follows people well into their adulthood and careers.

I have worked with many successful adults, even CEOs of companies, who fear internally that they will be found out as incompetent. In addition to decreased confidence and self-esteem, overprotecting your children decreases the development of their own coping skills and their ability to deal with negative outcomes, and often increases anxiety. The other major consequence is a sense of entitlement, and the development of a belief that things will always be taken care of. The reality is that the world will not treat them like their parents do; the world will not enable them. Their teachers, their bosses and the local police officer will not be okay with them not holding up their end of the bargain.

What are some things you can do to stop overprotecting and enabling your children, and to put your helicopter down?

  • Redefine the notion of failure. It is a word I try and help parents not to use. Instead, I encourage them to look at behavior as successive approximations to the mark. Each time you miss the mark, you are provided with new, good information to improve your next attempt.
  • Understand limits, consequences and follow-through, and hold your children accountable.
  • Recognize that difficulties and roadblocks are building blocks to growth, strength and independence. Overcoming obstacles may be painful, but are great learning tools.
  • Know that you cannot protect them from disappointment, and that not being successful at everything can actually be a benefit. Help them learn to understand that they do not need to be perfect. Like the saying goes: “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
  • Accept, and help them accept, the notion that things will not always work out. Help them take (safe) risks.

Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at askdrgelbart@gmail.com.

Moe Gelbart, Ph.D. 
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center