Parenting Adolescents — 02 December 2011
How to help teenagers and young adult children toward self-sufficiency

All parents want to provide their children with the best life possible as they guide them toward a self-sufficient, autonomous existence. Regrettably, many very good parents, in their attempt to facilitate their children’s lives, end up enabling their youngsters’ dependency and curtailing their ability to become responsible adults.

The term “enabling” was first attributed to teachers who protected children from facing appropriate consequences when they misbehaved or did not comply with assigned tasks. Enabling was later extended to the conduct of partners of addicted individuals, who similarly justified, excused or explained away illegal and inappropriate behavior. Enabling may be defined as: tolerating and/or excusing inappropriate behavior while exempting the other of his responsibility.

In parenting, researchers Shirley Lynch, David Hurford and AmyKay Cole state, “A healthy sense of independence is necessary in order to believe that one’s actions make a difference in one’s future. Parental enabling involves being overprotective by intervening to prevent children from experiencing appropriate consequences of misbehavior and reinforcing dependent behavior.”

Common enabling behaviors of parents include: Rushing to school to deliver your teenager’s lunch/homework/sweater that he/she forgot at home, signing a permission slip for illness when the youngster was too tired to go to school, or empathizing with your young child’s anger after he/she called the teacher a disrespectful name.

These and many other parental “kindnesses” toward youngsters only falsely empower the child to believe that he need not be concerned with the consequences of his/her inappropriate behavior. The world will understand. These young adults quickly find out that professors, employers, rental landlords, the law and governmental institutions are quite unforgiving of irresponsible or lax behavior.

As adolescents mature, some parents still perpetuate the enabling behaviors such as: allowing for the child’s reluctance to look for work because jobs are scarce, or paying for the child’s desired pleasures while he/she does not earn the basic necessities.

Effective parents:

  • Assess the implication of every action they take on behalf of their child by considering whether it enhances the youngster’s wellbeing in the moment or for life.
  • Abandon the notion that the child’s discomfort avoidance is their primary parental goal. Taking the consequences for bad behavior or errors is a deeply enhancing lesson for your child.
  • Help or gift your youngster in any way you can to enhance his/her already attained self-earned life.
  • Accept that helping means lending a hand while another does the lifting – not lifting alone while the other observes your effort.
  • Ask your child of any age: “How do you feel about your behavior? What was your contribution to the situation? How can I assist you in your plan for preventing or improving your state?”
  • Be clear that if you agree to carry on a major role it is temporary with specific timelines and achievements to be earned by your child.
  • Remember your own pride/satisfaction when you achieved your goals on your own? Your child deserves no less.




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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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