Supporting vs Enabling

May 30, 2019
Supporting vs Enabling

This week’s tip on supporting versus enabling your children comes from the Child Mind Institute. One of the basic ways we distinguish support from coddling is by assessing what children are capable of doing. But it’s not always easy to figure out what counts as supportive and what is enabling when a child’s behavior varies 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 Dr. David Anderson, a psychologist and director of the Behavior Disorders Center 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:

  • 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


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.

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
  • 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


For more information, resources and tips from the Child Mind Institute, please visit their website.

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