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Supporting vs Enabling

How to tell what's helping and what's not when a child has emotional or learning challenges

Writer: Julia Johnson Attaway

Clinical Expert: Dave Anderson, PhD

en Español

Why do parents spoon-feed babies, but expect healthy fourth graders to feed themselves? Because babies aren’t able to do the task alone, but older kids can. One of the basic ways we distinguish support from coddling is by assessing what children are capable of doing. The normal progression moves from complete support to coaching or teaching to self-reliance.

Yet what is relatively clear with a typical kid becomes murkier when a child struggles with learning disabilities or mental health issues. It’s not always easy to figure out what counts as supportive and what is enabling when a child’s mood, anxiety, distractability, and behavior vary from day to day. How do you know if you are being considerate of your child’s difficulties… or limiting his growth by taking on tasks he can do himself?

What is support?

“Life will throw all kinds of challenges at kids,” says David Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “And the goal of support is to build up resilience and develop coping strategies.”

So let’s start with a rule of thumb: support should always empower your child to move forward toward greater stability and more independence. Support will acknowledge difficulties yet not eliminate them. It’s about working with your child as he learns to overcome obstacles, manage his fears, and build confidence for the future.

Thus it is always supportive to:

  • Learn about your child’s disorder and treatment, so you are clear about what is helpful for healing and what is not
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings, validating how hard it is to be scared, sad, uncomfortable, embarrassed, or struggling
  • Provide simple human comforts – snuggles, hot chocolate, a shoulder rub, sensory tools, anything that brings the stress down — and practical assistance that helps her push through strong emotions
  • Model healthy coping skills for handling frustration, disappointment, anger and anxiety (or model perseverance if you are still learning how to do this)
  • Provide structure at home in the form of appropriate rules, schedules, and positive consequences so your child can experience success with his behavior
  • Notice and comment upon small steps forward, praising effort and perseverance in addition to results
  • Discuss house rules and consequences in calm times, so you don’t find yourself inventing them on the fly
  • Coach your child through problems she cannot handle without assistance
  • Set clear boundaries for the personal health and safety of all members of the family (including yourself!)
  • Advocate for your child at his school, so he has accommodations for his disability that level the playing field
  • Seek professional help for any member of your family who is struggling

If your child is already working with a therapist, you can support the work done in session by asking for “homework” that reinforces skills being worked on. The therapist may also provide guidance on strategies you can use in handling specific problems.

How enabling is different

To enable is to inadvertently reinforce an undesired behavior. All parents do this to some degree, because it’s only natural to want to shield our children from pain, fear, failure, difficulty and embarrassment.

Research suggests it’s best to delay exposure to the big risks like drugs, sex, and alcohol as long as possible, but as Dr. Anderson notes, children shouldn’t be protected from all risk-taking. Smaller risks are where kids build coping skills and confidence. As parents we have to learn to tolerate our own discomfort at seeing kids struggle if we are going to help them grow.

Enabling undesirable behavior also occurs when we give in to complaints or demands because we desperately want to avoid conflict. This avoidance is generally a short-term fix that’s at odds with helping the child make 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 her behalf instead of letting her learn to express her own thoughts and feelings
  • Enforce house rules inconsistently because you feel bad about your child’s struggles or are afraid he won’t like you
  • Overly react to non-violent tantrums by engaging in long lectures or emotional fireworks of your own
  • Intervene with other adults to prevent your child from experiencing disappointment, rather than helping her work through her feelings
  • Protect him from the natural consequences of his actions

When matters are not clear-cut

Unfortunately, mental health symptoms vary from day to day, so what’s possible for a kid to do one day may be impossible the next. A depressed teen may, for example, muster the energy to do homework on Tuesday, then climb into bed overwhelmed by sadness on Wednesday. An anxious kid might make it through the school day but then explode in the safety of home. This shifting ground between ability and disability can make it difficult for parents to know what constitutes support and what enables mental health challenges to retain their grip.

Gauging what your child can and can’t do will always be a matter of observation, parental judgment, and trial and error. However, your accuracy in predicting success will improve if you keep track of the circumstances surrounding when success occurs. Often the good days are a function of basics, such as:

  • Did your child have a solid night’s sleep?
  • Did he eat enough food and drink enough fluid?
  • What else happened this week? (bullying at school, change of routine, family strife, etc.)
  • What’s on the horizon? (upcoming exams, unpleasant anniversaries, stressful situations)
  • Has medication has been taken regularly, or has there been a recent change in medication?
  • How calmly have you been able to respond to your child’s anger or distress?
  • How consistent have you (and your partner) been in sticking to house rules?
  • Is there any physical issue going on? (hormonal cycle, headache, incipient stomach bug, or other)

As you build your database of insight, you will get better at assessing whether your expectations are impossible, difficult-but-possible-with-help, difficult-but-possible-with-time, or not a problem.

Drama vs. reality

Kids with emotional challenges are refreshingly like every other kid on the planet when it comes to trying to get what they want… and avoid doing what they dislike. Sometimes the strategies they use involve capitalizing on a nugget of truth, like exaggerating a legitimate emotion. This is normal. Like most of us, kids tend to plead being overwhelmed when they simply fear being overwhelmed, and think “I can’t!” when they really mean “I don’t want to!”

Any parent who has logged hours of worry over their kid is likely to find this incredibly provoking. The prospect of heading into (yet another) downward spiral is anxiety inducing. This can make determining how much of your child’s protest is due to inability and how much is an overlay of drama extra tricky.

Try to avoid falling into the either/or, can-she-or-can’t-she trap. Almost all situations fall somewhere between can and can’t, and the way to find the sweet spot is to validate your child’s feeling and move things forward from there. For example, you might say:

  • “I know you don’t feel up to it, but I’d like you to come anyway. If you’re still too exhausted once we get there, we don’t have to go in.”
  • “Yes, this will be challenging, and yet I’m pretty sure we can find ways to help you manage it.”
  • “Aww, I can see you’re tired! That often happens when you haven’t had enough fluids. Let me get you a cup of juice and see if that helps perk you up.”
  • “It’s normal to be nervous about something like this. What’s one thing you can do to pull your anxiety down to a more manageable level?”
  • “Hmmm. I can see it seems intimidating, yet I’m pretty sure it’s not entirely What could we do to make it merely very difficult?”

What you’re looking for is the middle ground, the wiggle room, the tiny step of progress. If you succeed – great! If you don’t, the information you gather in the process will equip you for the next round. Talk to your child’s therapist, collaborate on strategies, report back on progress… and move forward. With patience and insight, time and wisdom, professional help and at-home parental support, your child will make progress.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is supporting vs enabling a child?

Supporting a child means helping them learn how to overcome obstacles on their own. Enabling a child means undermining their resilience by protecting them from obstacles — like letting them avoid uncomfortable situations or being inconsistent about rules because you feel bad.

What are the signs of an enabling parent?

An enabling parent might let their child avoid all uncomfortable situations, speak for them rather than letting them speak for themselves, intervene to prevent them from experiencing disappointment, or protect them from the natural consequences of their actions.

How can you tell if you are supporting or enabling your child?

You can distinguish supporting from enabling by assessing what children are capable of doing. The normal progression as children get older moves from complete support to coaching or teaching to self-reliance.

This article was last reviewed or updated on May 15, 2024.