I struggle with this one a lot. Every parent I work with asks me the same question: When are we helping our children and when are we enabling them?

Enabling has many definitions in different contexts. What I am referring to in this blog is the definition used by the mental health community. Enabling can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. More simply put, parents enable their children when they are thinking they are helping when, in actuality, they are just making the problem worse, or they are lengthening the time the child remains dependent on the parent. For example, a child fearful of sleeping alone is allowed to sleep in the parent’s bed. Some of my clients struggle with this issue even when the child is 12-years-old. Needless to say, this can be incredibly disruptive to everyone’s well-being. Parents usually cave when the child starts to whine, cry or argue. Unfortunately, the problem just persists for as long as the parents are willing to allow it.

I have experienced enabling with my oldest son who is now 19. I drug him through school, literally. Helping him with every assignment, fighting all his battles for him, and rescuing him from any unpleasantry along the way (including family parties and pep assemblies). Now he does not feel capable of going off to college. So, we are starting to teach him how to become an independent person even with all of his medical and psychological challenges.

Having a child dependent on you when they are 5 is fine. Many parents feel valued by the importance they play in their young children’s lives. As our children grow older, we expect them to become more independent in their self care, school work, and social functioning. With a 1-year-old, we had to change diapers. At 3, we really worked hard to end that lovely task. In second grade we might walk our child through math homework or diligently work on decoding words. By sixth grade, the child should only come to us for specific questions, not manipulating us into doing their homework for them.

This is not as black and white when the child has a learning disability or AD/HD. Parental support may linger into high school for many of these students, and that is ok as long as we are watching for the moment in time when they become more capable to do a little more on their own. Many parents miss these shifts. Most of us are exhausted, so it is easy to miss and just keep on doing everything as if the child requires our support. It takes a lot to be constantly testing the water with our children’s ability to do things for themselves, AND it is the most important thing in the world to help build their self esteem. No child wants to remain dependent on a parent even if the parent is providing 5 star concierge service. All people want to feel capable and independent — especially teenagers. If a parent does not believe a child to be capable, then why should the child believe in themselves?

When you have a child with any type of challenge, whether it be physical or emotional or neurological, the periods of dependency become less typical and hard to define. While my intellectually disabled child who is 11 just made a bowl of cereal the other day and did not spill a drop of milk, I do not expect the same from my brilliant 19-year-old who cannot write with a pencil. He might not even get the milk container open let alone pour the cereal without it going everywhere.

The line between enabling and helping a child as a parent is a line in the sand. It moves constantly. What a child can do one day changes the next. While my daughter could not manage the cereal last year, this year she did it. The only way I knew that she could manage the cereal was to let her try without me interfering in anyway, including emotionally. I needed to not react, cringe, or step close to her. I stood where I was and, out of the corner of my eye, watched as she worked so very hard to manage everything. When she succeeded, we celebrated. She was incredibly proud of herself and was empowered. I had to be ok if she failed though. Messes, mistakes, and failures are necessary to determine if a child is capable of a task.

Of course, a parent’s intuition is critical for life threatening situations. We would not let a 2-year-old cross the street alone. But we might allow our 9-year-old who was well trained.

And as children grow older, they must become more self-directed in what accommodations they choose to utilize. My second son, who is now a senior, uses his accommodations less and less because he is maturing and learning how to work with his disabilities. This only comes if there is a great deal of love, safety, and support for the child. I need to be ok as a parent when my son refuses to use one of his accommodations and his grade suffers. I always ask, “What did you learn from this?”

If I come at my son with judgment (e.g. “I told you to take the test with your program manager!”), I am telling him it is not ok for him to test his own boundaries. I am implying taking risks is not wise. In life we all need to take risks to learn and grow. Failure is our greatest learning opportunity, ever. This is a neurological factoid. Parents need to exploit mistakes not to condemn or punish but to empower and enlighten.

My son might need to fail a couple (hundred) times to learn his lesson. If I interfere, he might never learn. Having a child who is 19 and dependent on you is frustrating and worrisome. I worry my oldest will never be ok on his own. He might continually look to me for answers or what to do next. How will he ever find his passion if he is externally referencing everything off of me. He won’t.

We must be vigilant as parents to watch for the signs that a child is ready for the next step. Maybe they can pick up their own clothes or be responsible for feeding the dog. Is our middle schooler capable of resolving a conflict with his teacher without our involvement? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it is no.

What is your tendency? Do you always swoop in and save the day? Are you concerned your child will suffer? Do you answer questions directed at your child for them? These can be signs that you are enabling rather than empowering or helping your child.

So, how do we know when we are enabling or helping. Well, you have to use your powers of observation, your intuition, and self-control. The self-control is key to managing your reactions to your child’s failed attempts. When my oldest attempts to pour a glass of water, I need to be ok with the mess. If he never tries, he will never succeed. Too often, we as parents, do not want our children to suffer maybe the way we did when our needs were not met as a child.

Our goal is to help our children out of the nest and into a passionate life not to enable them to stay dependent on us and living in our basement.