Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent

Respecting parent – child boundaries, whatever the stage of life

grad blogStaying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

I’ve learned that the work to be a balanced parent continues well beyond the school years – indeed beyond leaving home.  My tendency, embedded in my family of origin, is to over- invest as a parent. Hence I make an ongoing effort to relate to my daughters in a way that respects their autonomy while being an interested support.

I’ve had a valuable opportunity to work on this over the past couple of years, thanks to my youngest daughter making a call to go back to university and change her career direction. The icing on the cake of this ‘growing up opportunity’ is that she chose the same career platform as myself – the potential for me to become over-involved in this journey is heightened.

In May this year I joined with close family to attend and celebrate her graduation.  During toasts and reflections over lunch she thanked me for the support she received.  I responded, affirming my respect for how she had engaged with her subjects and excelled as a result. My contribution had been to listen to her on those occasions when she was struggling to figure out how to tackle an essay or select from the assignment options.  I had worked consciously not to jump in with suggestions or advice, just to listen and ask questions about how she was thinking.  “How are you approaching the topic?” “What are you weighing up in deciding which questions to tackle?” “What’s your thinking about the issues?”….There was always a niggling part of me that was drawn to jump into the essay topic as if it was mine to do – to cross boundaries and begin to step into the actual structuring of the argument.  I know this drive to take over for a child (whatever the age) is partially driven by a worry about whether or not my daughter is up to the task – not a logical concern but something embedded beneath the surface of maternal sensitivity.  At another level it is also an insidious, yet out of awareness, way to steady myself in the position as a caretaking Mum – feeling useful can be a way of stealing strength from the other.  Of course jumping in to do for another, what they can figure out for themselves, is not a true caring act – it crowds another’s space to grow self-motivation and regulation.

It has been a joy to stand back and hear my daughter’s independent approach to her studies; to see her both struggle to manage the pressures of a demanding work load and also to flourish in her work and results. Hearing my child under pressure is a fine laboratory for me to grow as a parent. I get to practice being present – while staying in my own skin, to be a listening ear, to trust that she can and must find her own way to overcome the challenge.

Being a parent into a child’s adult years can indeed be a gift- as friendship and mutual support is cultivated. I remind myself to ensure that this relationship keeps a separate space from my commitment to shared support and friendship in my marriage.  I appreciate that diverting from being truly present in a marriage and in one’s own adult responsibilities is the fuel to over- crowding and over helping the next generation.

I’ve truly appreciated learning from my daughter as she shared her scholarship during her studies and in her work assignments.   As the years unfold I will be interested to stay on the sidelines and watch her carve out her own unique career path alongside the other important aspects of her life and relationships. Staying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

Postscript – I sent this blog to my 28 year old daughter for her to read over. My principle for these blogs is that they are about my efforts rather than the other people I mention. However I do want to give family members the opportunity to suggest edits of any aspects that speak about them personally. My daughter sent back the following comments:

I think that you did a good job of finding a balance between not doing any of my work or thinking for me but at the same time not ignoring me when I needed a sounding board. My sense of achievement, when receiving strong results, I believe was all the more satisfying knowing I had gotten there on my own.

Questions for reflection

(For those who are not parents these questions can apply to other relationships at work and in other groups)

  • Are there ways I tend to ‘over- help’ a child – or in another significant relationship?
  • How is my balance between genuine interest and connection with my child and allowing their autonomy?
  • How do I respond when my child is struggling to manage something?
  • Did my parent’s ‘over- worry’ or ‘over- help’ any of their children? How has this influenced my own focus?
  • How do I ensure that I don’t neglect my own responsibilities to be real in my marriage and other responsibilities?

Relevant quotes from Bowen Theory about anxious child focus

NOTE: In Bowen family systems theory all patterns sit on a continuum of intensity from very high to mild. Bowen suggests that all parents have some degree of unrealistic projection/investment into the next generation – and not all children are equally invested in or worried about. This variation in worry focus for different children explains part of how siblings can turn out very differently in terms of their capacity to manage life challenges. Parents are not to blame for this, as it is beyond awareness and driven by loving intensions; but with awareness they can reduce ‘over rescuing, monitoring or correcting’ a child and turn their attention to managing themselves.

Some parents are so emotionally invested in the child that so much of their thoughts, worries and psychic energies go to the child…it is difficult for them to speak about anything else. Bowen  P 97 FTCP

The child functions in reaction to the parents instead of being responsible for him/herself. If parents shift their focus off the child and become more responsible for their own actions, the child will automatically (perhaps after testing whether the parents really mean it) assume more responsibility for him/herself. Kerr & Bowen (1988). Family Evaluation. p. 202.

Parents often feel they have not given enough love, attention, or support to a child manifesting problems, but they have invested more time, energy, and worry in this child than in his siblings. The siblings less involved in the family projection process have a more mature and reality-based relationship with their parents that fosters the siblings developing into less needy, less reactive, and more goal-directed people. Kerr M 2004, One  Family’s Story.

“Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent”Jenny Brown