The Difference Between Helping and Enabling


When does “helping” a child become “enabling” a child? It is hard to know where that line is sometimes.

As parents, we love our kids and are willing to make sacrifices for them, but can our sacrifices ever send the wrong message to our kids? The answer is yes! We can certainly send unhealthy and unrealistic messages to our kids leading them to believe that the world will do everything it can to make sure they are comfortable, and especially, that they do not fail.

On the other hand, we want our kids to learn to be unselfish and learn to put others first at times. We want them to be willing to help their siblings, friends, neighbors, and others without thinking “Why should I help? It’s not my problem.” or, “What’s in it for me?”

So how can parents know when they should step in and help their child verses when they should step back allow their child to experience the results of their child’s own decisions? Here are a few questions that might help you know when to step in verses when to step back.

Is my child responsible? Deciding to take a step back, and allowing your child to experience the consequences of their actions can help kids learn to be responsible. When parents step in and solve their child’s problems for them, it can lead a child to believe that their actions won’t have any negative effect on them and it can lead them to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

However, if my child is already responsible then helping them may look more like teamwork. For instance, say my oldest child helps get the lunches ready for all of her younger siblings in the morning and then she accidently leaves behind her own lunch when she leaves for school. Would it feel right to tell her that you understand the pain of her situation and encourage her to make it through the day the best she can and that tomorrow she will have another chance to bring her lunch with her? No, it would not. In this situation, I would do what I could to get a lunch to her and include a note in that lunch of how pleased I am with her for how helpful she is in the morning. On the other hand, say I have a child that has a habit of staying in bed until the absolute last possible minute before getting ready and then frantically grabbing her things as she runs out to the car pool which has been waiting for her for the past 5 minutes. Let’s say this child calls me because she left her lunch at home and wants me to bring her another one – preferable from her favorite fast food restaurant. This might be a better time to step back, show empathy, understanding, and encouragement, and allow her to wait it out until she gets home.

Do I feel taken advantage of? Helping others can be a wonderful thing even when it requires us to pause what we are doing, adjust our plans, or make arrangements in order to help someone in need. Conversely, if our helping someone has turned into us doing the work for them, or we start to feel that our help is just expected rather than appreciated then our helping may not be helping, it may be hurting. It may be teaching our kids that they can get others to do their work for them rather than teaching them that they may be able to have someone do their work with them. The key here is for a parent to think “Am I doing the work for them or with them?” and “Am I being appreciated for the help I’m giving?”

If I do nothing what might happen? Sometimes the parent needs to step in because the child is not capable of solving the problem or the situation is too dangerous. For example, say your child is in a physically unsafe situation such as getting stuck while hiking, or he becomes aware that the party he went to has alcohol, drugs, or violence and he reaches out for help. In this situation, it would be better for a parent to step in to help rather than tell the child that they got themselves into their own mess and they will have to get themselves out of it. The general rule here is that if life, limb, or physical safety is in serious threat then I, as the parent, will step in to help my child.

Sometimes the consequences are big, such as, a child failing a grade or being picked up for shoplifting. In situations such as these, where the consequences will likely be serious and even long-lasting, I may be involved in the process, but I still may not rescue them from the situation. Yes, it’s true, even though the consequences might be big, I may still allow my child to fail a grade at school or work out their situation with a judge or a probation officer rather than stepping in to resolve their situations.

Am I robbing my child of important learning opportunities? When children make decisions and then get to live with the consequences of their decisions, they can gain real life wisdom. When parents step in and solve their child’s problems for them, the parents might be robbing their child of real world learning opportunities that may come in handy later on in life. When you think of some of the hardest lessons you have learned in your life, did they come easy, or was there at least a little pain involved that left the impression – “I don’t want to do that again.”

Am I enabling my child or disabling my child? The title of this article uses the word enabling, but it should really use the word disabling. Enabling means to make someone or something able or capable to do something. However, we commonly use the word enabling to refer to the set of behaviors the child has developed that get others to be responsible for them. Thus they are enabled or capable of getting others to do things for them. What we should really be saying is that we are disabling the child. We are making them incapable of being responsible and doing things for themselves. A favorite quote states, “If we do for others what they can and ought to do for themselves we often weaken them rather than strengthen them.” This quote should be used in context though. There are kids who are so emotionally fragile that they may look capable on the outside but are not yet fully capable emotionally on the inside to do certain things for themselves. In these situations, knowing your child and your child’s limits is very important. Then, bringing the child to the limits of their capabilities over and over again, while being there as a support, can help the child eventually rise to the level of their full capacity.

Am I teaching my child to have unrealistic expectations of others? Similarly to what has already been stated, when parents step in and intervene between their child and the consequences of their child’s behaviors, the parents may very well be teaching the child that there will always be someone who will solve their problems for them. As the child grows, he may come to expect this from roommates, co-workers, or even his spouse. Unfortunately, over time, most people tend to resent the person for whom they are constantly solving problems. When they eventually become fed up and find ways to avoid or separate themselves from that kind of person.

Do I want to help my child because I am uncomfortable with the consequences? If a parent feels so uncomfortable for their child to experience natural or logical consequences it may be helpful for the parent to explore where that discomfort is coming from. Many parents who have unresolved trauma, or parents who were given consequences in a shaming way or by a controlling person when they were young become emotionally triggered when their kids receive consequences. Thus, they try to control the situation in efforts to alleviate their own past discomfort and anxiety by shielding their child from the kind of experience they went through when they were young. Regardless of how noble that might sound, it can still lead to some of the same negative effects that happen to kids when parents rescue their children from their consequences of their choices.

Therefore, when it comes to knowing when we should step in and help our children verses when we should step back and make the difficult decision not to help them, we should keep in mind that each child is different and that each situation is different. What might be helpful for one child may have the opposite effect on another. Sometimes it is not clear-cut what the absolute “right” answer is all the time. The questions above can give you things to think about when faced with the decision of whether to step in or not. Hopefully, they can help guide you through leading your child to become a respectful, responsible, and helpful adult.


Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona.  He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Therapy Group.

He works with couples on establishing safety and security within their relationship and helps couples understand and support each other.  He also teaches  parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculumclasses for parents ofchildren with ADHDstep-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents.  He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.