Are we helping or enabling our teenage son? My husband and I talk about this all the time. Sometimes we see the issue pretty much the same; other times, we flat out don’t. You see, we have two different personality types and sometimes two distinct parenting styles. But we share one vision: we want what’s best for our son and for our family. But how do we determine what is best for him and for us, and how can we achieve it?
Our Autism Experience
Honestly, we don’t have the answer, yet we also don’t consider the option of quitting each other or our family. As a couple we need each other. As a family, we’re in this together. I married Cole knowing that we would face challenges. Any couple does. Growing up, I even felt that someday I would have a child with some special needs. Now I have two sons. The oldest has high-functioning autism. I am generally careful not to label, but to help you understand our situation, I need to say that he has much higher-functioning autism than many cases I have seen or read about. In fact, in many ways I’d say he’s a pretty normal kid with a few quirks that I love.
Big Bro doesn’t have behavioral issues (except for when he’s pestering Little Bro). He’s loving, good-natured, and easy to get along with (except for when he’s pestering Little Bro; you get it right?). He’s funny, especially when you get to know him. I relate to him, and in some ways, my brain is wired like his. I get it, for instance, when he is feeling stressed and overwhelmed and needs to relax or zone out. I get it when he wants to stay home and not socialize or when he needs to stim. I get it when his mind is rapidly trying to take in everything in a new situation, making it hard for him to know where to start on a task and focus on the basics. I get that it’s hard for him to remember that yesterday’s tasks and the solutions we discovered still apply today. Why? Because today is new, and the project is slightly different.
I also get it when my husband is absolutely frustrated because we have to repeat instructions a thousand times. Every. Single. Day. I get it when we sit down to set goals with our son, and we get excited because it seems like he’s going to launch into something he loves and then–not much happens, usually.
Helping a Little Is Good
BUT I also see successes and celebrate them. We ARE progressing. One of our highlights was when our son auditioned for the school play a few years ago and landed a featured part. He was thrilled! We were thrilled! It’s a big deal that he stood up in front of his peers, sang a solo, and then auditioned with a speaking part he’d not read before. He did a great job. There were about 50 cast members selected; twice that many tried out. Not everyone got a speaking part; he had a few lines. Our son was also in the previous school play and worked hard during many rehearsals. How did he get to this point? We helped him. He had music lessons and tons of encouragement. His drama teacher was absolutely amazing. Lots of baby steps helped my son gain confidence for theatre.
But over the years we have struggled and struggled to teach basic life skills. Hygiene. Executive functioning. Goal setting. Household chores. Social interactions. I have made so many chore charts over the years. I’ve written down detailed instructions. We’ve worked side by side. We’ve role played so many scenarios. Some of them are starting to sink in. Others will be a life-long struggle. But, as parents, we have to help our son break things down, set goals, make lists, set reminders. We have to help. Then we have to let go.
Helping Too Much Is Enabling
When our son was little, he had aides in class. He needed them very much for a variety of reasons. But I quickly saw that he was also quite happy to let them do his work. He was a cute little boy with curly hair and dimples. So it was easy to smile up at the aide, ask for help, and sit back to relax. Occasionally, I had to ask a few of his aides, who were terrific women, to pull back. Don’t give him the answers. Don’t even hint. If he’s stuck on what to do next (which is often), prompt and help him discover what to do. But please, please, please don’t do things for him.
And it wasn’t just the aides. I was first given this feedback by early-intervention therapists who were very wise. They knew what children like my son would face in the future. They knew that the tendency for learned helplessness is real. And they warned me early on.
Why is it so important not to enable our children, especially those who are on the autism spectrum? Because they grow up. They have to become adults at some point. And as parents, we want them to succeed to their very best–at whatever level that is.
Fast forward to my son’s teenage years. He is still very chill about some things–even important things. A D in high-school math two weeks before the term ended gave us all a huge scare. Because next year’s math is going to be even harder. Bless the school tutor who somehow helped him figure it out. But HE had to work HARD. And it was last minute. And I have no idea how he did it. But his final grade was a B! He had help to show him the concepts again and again, but HE had to do the work. HE went before school, during lunch, after school to get help. HE had to put forth the effort to learn. No one could do it for him.
The math grade is just one example of the many times when I’ve had to back off. He’s reached an age when I can no longer do things for him–in order for him to succeed in life. Help your child do what they can do. But don’t do it for them.
Explanations, Not Excuses
I can make lots of excuses about why my son is the way he is or why I’m the way I am. I try very hard to only use the term autism as an explanation when it’s really needed. I only tell people that he has autism on a “need-to-know basis.” Why? It’s a perfectly good reason, some might say. The answer? Because autism as an excuse is far more damaging than autism as a diagnosis. Let me clarify. The challenges associated with autism, and there are many, can be reduced with learned coping skills and therapies. There are solutions. In ALL cases, there are ways to improve. But if you as a parent teach your child that autism is an excuse, they will believe you. They will give up trying or, at the very least, will just make minimal efforts. They will tell themselves they can’t do things because you and others have told them they can’t–because they have autism.
You can say the same for anyone with any disability. In fact, I believe we all have some degree of disability. I’m not trying in any way to diminish others’ physical or mental limitations. They’re real. Some are so great and challenging that I find myself grateful for my seemingly small challenges, in comparison. And I’m ever amazed by the accomplishments of those who defy the odds. Aren’t we all inspired by the stories of resilient people? The ones who have defied the odds?
There’s a pattern in their behavior that seems clear. Resilient individuals don’t make excuses. Sure, they get down. They get angry. But they don’t give up. They work around and through their obstacles. Others help them along the way, but enabling doesn’t drive their success. This is true in every case.
What You Can Do to Help
So, it’s time to ask yourself as a parent: Are you helping or enabling your child? Consider making a list of things that you do to “help.” Ask your spouse or a trusted friend if any items on the list are “enabling.” Are you doing too much? Is your child losing out on opportunities to learn and grow because of your efforts? Brainstorm any flagged items to determine how you can pull back and change to truly help your child to help themself. You might also consider having a discussion with your child, if they’re old enough to understand and/or can converse. Explain why you won’t be doing as much to “help.” Discuss together what is truly helpful–and make changes. Show confidence in your child’s ability to learn and grow, even making mistakes along the way.
Expect to periodically review your progress as a parent, as well as your child’s progress. We all know there are no quick solutions for establishing work ethic and a person’s character. We’re each shaping and molding as life goes along. We each deserve to know that we can do things–especially hard things. It’s the best gift a parent can give their child. Help them to know and achieve their greatness.
You might also be interested in reading my husband’s related post, part 1 of this discussion. Click here.
How do you differentiate between enabling and helping?
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