Supporting or Enabling: How to Tell What’s Helping or Hurting your Child

pexels-photo-698878.jpegWe love our children and want them to be able to meet life’s challenges successfully, with positive outcomes, right? Certainly. But how will parents know whether they are supporting or enabling their child when they step in and lend a helping hand?

We must first define what support means. When feeding a baby, we will either hold the milk bottle up to the baby’s mouth, in appropriate angle to allow milk to flow-minimal air, more milk-less gas in baby’s stomach. At a certain age, your baby can hold a bottle on their own, needing less help from mother. So, as children’s ability increases, the less support they need from us. Otherwise, if mom continues to give a bottle to a baby who is fully capable of drinking from a cup, we are seen as coddling. It is viewed as giving baby a crutch and holding back a child’s development, and stopping your child from trying out new skills. If your child has special needs, certain developmental challenges and behavioral issues, this is an important step in parenting.


The normal progression moves from support to coaching to self-reliance. The supports we offer are dependent upon each child’s present skills, and thus we must assess what each child can actually do. Another example involves cleaning a child’s room. Some children are certainly capable of cleaning their own room or their own mess, but we still see parents cleaning their teenagers bedroom. Most teens have all the appropriate and necessary skills to do it themselves. When parents complete tasks or perform chores for them, that is a form of enabling, spoiling and denying a child the opportunity to grow, learn to handle responsibilities, and demonstrate independence.

It’s not always clear whether you are supporting or enabling or stifling a child unless we step back, trust your gut and assess what they can and sometimes-should do themselves. The goal of support is to build resilience and coping skills and strategies. We want to empower children to move forward towards stability and greater independence. Support acknowledges difficulties, challenges yet does not eliminate them. It’s about working with your child as he/she learns to overcome obstacles, manage fears and build confidence for the future.

It is supportive to:

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings, validating how difficult it is to be scared, uncomfortable, sad, embarrassed…
  • Model healthy coping skills for handling frustration, disappointment, anger or model perseverance if you are still learning how to do this
  • Notice and comment on small steps forward, little successes, praising effort and perseverance and the results[success or failure]
  • Coach your child through problems if she/he cannot do so without assistance
  • Advocate for your child at school
  • Provide structure at home in the form of appropriate not oppressive rules, schedules, and  positive consequences so your child experiences successes for behavior
  • Set clear boundaries regarding the health and safety of all family members, including yourself and child
  • Discuss house rules and consequences so your child is aware and for consistency-not making them up as you go


Enabling is quite different. To enable is to inadvertently reinforce an undesired behavior. All parents enable to some degree, because it is natural to want to shield your child from the fear, disappointment, embarrassment. Research says that  children shouldn’t be protected from all risks and risk-taking. Small risks help children build coping, resilience and confidence. As parents, we must learn to tolerate our own discomfort seeing children struggle if we want to help them grow. However, parents should delay exposure to big risks like drugs and alcohol as long as possible.

Enabling is giving in when we want to avoid conflict. This is usually a short term fix totally at odds with helping children build long term progress. It is usually enabling to:

  • Allow your child to avoid all uncomfortable situations
  • Cover up for things your child did, forgot to do or did poorly
  • Speak up on your child’s behalf instead of letting your child learn to express their own thoughts and feelings
  • Enforce house rules inconsistently for fear of your child’s anger, or that you won’t be liked. Every child will be angry and dislike parents at some time in their development.
  • Protect your child from the natural consequences of his/her actions

Mental health symptoms and adolescence may vary from day to day and makes it difficult to assess your child’s capacity and behaviors. Gauging what your child can and can’t do will always be a matter of observation, parental judgment and trial and error. Your accuracy will improve if you keep a watchful eye on circumstances surrounding successes. Typically, the good days are a function of the basics, such as:

  • Did your child eat enough food or drink enough fluids?
  • Did your child get enough rest or sufficient sleep?
  • What happened this week?[special circumstances like, bullying, family problem, exam]
  • What’s coming up in the near future?[exams, anniversaries, medical visit]
  • Have you been sticking to the house rules consistently?
  • Has medication been taken regularly?
  • Any physical changes going on[menstruation, headache, etc…]?

Once you build your database of insight, you will improve at determining whether your expectations are not possible, difficult but possible with help, difficult but possible with time, or not a problem. Emotionally challenged children, aren’t unlike most other children  when it comes to manipulation and getting what they want, or avoiding what they dislike. They will cry out “I can’t” when it’s really “I don’t want to” or fear of trying.


Try to avoid the either/or, can or can’t dilemma. Try to find the happy middle. This wiggle room is wonderful-no drama! If not, remember this for the next time. Validate feelings and move things forward in ways like:

  • “I know you don’t feel up to it but I’d like you to come anyway. If too exhausted when we get there, you don’t have to go in.”
  • ” I can see that you’re tired. This happens when you haven’t had enough nourishment. Let’s get you some juice. That will help perk you up.”
  • ” It’s normal to be nervous about something like this. What can we do to help you reduce your anxiety about it and make it more manageable?”

Once again, the main objective is to support and empower your child with coping strategies to persevere, take risks, build confidence and be resilient. Avoid enabling and acting as a crutch, giving in to your child’s fear or maladaptive behaviors when you already have the insight in knowing his/her capabilities. Help your child move forward and move forward with them. Talk to a professional to gather some strategies and more valuable insights to move forward. Your child will make progress.


1 thought on “Supporting or Enabling: How to Tell What’s Helping or Hurting your Child

  1. coaching towards self reliance. ….LOVE It!! Empowering our children towards independence and healthy interdependence is SO important. Thanks for sharing!


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