Help for the Over-Helping parent
Imagine, in a dream, you’re on vacation. You’re walking up the street from the train station to your B&B, carrying your backpack and water bottle. Someone comes up alongside you and slings their big duffle bag over your shoulder. You’re confused but you adjust to the weight and carry on. A few minutes later someone piles their suitcase on top of your backpack. You don’t understand what’s going on, but you feel like you’re supposed to be carrying all this luggage.
Carrying someone else’s luggage is a great analogy for 'parentification' – when parents seek emotional or practical support from their child and the child prematurely assumes adult responsibilities and behaviors. This can happen when a parent is sick, absent or incapable of providing support. The child wants to please their parents, so they accept the role. It can also happen when a bright, sensitive child is born to emotionally immature parents and naturally becomes a mini-caregiver or mini-therapist. These kids often seem too grown-up for their age (for which they are quite likely praised). All that luggage is getting damn heavy now. You know you need to set something down… and you decide to leave behind your own backpack.
Parentified kids forgo their own needs for the sake of others’. And they begin to measure their worth and lovability by how useful they are to others. By adolescence, they are used to carrying extra weight and often become the 'mom' in their friend group and allow others to exploit their helpfulness. They get into relationships in which they have to make things work at their own expense. By adulthood, these sherpas are carrying the bulk of the responsibility in their relationships with their partners, kids, friends and relatives. At work, they regularly step in to fill the gaps left by their colleagues. As long as they are helpful to others, they believe, then they will receive approval and appreciation. The problem with this belief is that there's no such thing as 'helpful enough' and so they never feel really appreciated, accepted and loved.
Every parent wants to help their kids - the question is how, when and how much.
When these people become parents, they are the Helpers and Fixers. When their kid has a problem, they jump in with solutions. When their teen blows a gasket, they automatically set about repairing it. They can’t help but try to help. I’m not denying that we’re ALL powerfully propelled by biology and love to help our children. What I’m talking about here is an uncontrollable urge to take over and solve a child’s problem. You see, Helpers and Fixers feel intensely agitated when they see others with unmet needs and unsolved problems, especially their kids. A kind of auto-pilot kicks in, like an addiction. Their heart rate goes up and they feel like they will explode if they don't take action. There’s a broken record in their heads saying, “You must take care of this. You have to carry that backpack. And that suitcase. And that duffle bag...” And that can cause problems with teen and young adult children who are developing their independence. This is the time when they’re supposed to be exploring new things, trying their ideas and solving their own problems and, when mom or dad is always taking over and fixing things, of course it leads to resentment, hostility and detachment. Regardless of the parent’s intention.
It doesn’t have to stay that way. If you were ‘parentified’ as a child and you’re carrying the bulk of the weight in your relationship with your big kid, I want to acknowledge that this role isn’t easy to set down. But, step by step, and with support, you can detangle yourself from those outdated beliefs about your value and lovability. First, let’s acknowledge what this way of being has allowed for in your life – your strength, capability, resilience, reliability, generosity and resourcefulness. These are beautiful qualities that can serve you well… in the right proportion. Qualities that you definitely want to be driving the car in some situations but need to be able to pop into the trunk at other times. I invite you to take a moment here and consider how the sherpa/ helper/ fixer role isn’t working for you and your big kid. Please go gently with yourself.
How might your overhelpfulness be hindering the development of your teen’s problem-solving skills?
Could your tendency to jump in be deeply frustrating to someone who needs to figure things out for themselves?
Are they deterred from telling you about their problems because they know you’ll automatically try to fix them?
If you’re assuming that you’ve got the right solution for your kid, how might that block the possibility of other solutions that might suit them better?
Does your help cause them to doubt their adulting skills?
How are your attempts to become closer causing more distance between you?
Is the love you’re trying to share being experienced in the way you intend?
First steps for breaking free Notice your urge to help. Pause - even just three seconds - and say, “Oh, here’s that urge again.” And set your intention to really get to know it. Take note of your inner dialogue – what’s being said and with what tone of voice? Scan your emotional landscape to identify the main feelings that accompany the urge to help. Observe what’s happening in your body; those physical responses will be cues you can watch for in the future. Dear one, of all that you’re carrying, what’s truly yours to carry? As you consider this question, listen for the voices that might say, ‘but I HAVE to. No one else can do it. It’d be irresponsible to set this down’. It’s ok. Acknowledge those thoughts. Even say them out loud and write them down. Then take some time to ground yourself and ask, 'Are all these duties and suitcases really my responsibility at this point in my life? If the answer is No, to whom do some of the weights rightfully belong? Again, you may have thoughts popping up that the other person couldn’t possibly be asked or wouldn’t be able to carry it but, just for the moment, set those objections aside and identify who should be carrying that weight. Next, of your TRUE responsibilities, how do you want to carry them in this chapter of your life? Try visualizing yourself with each responsibility one by one. Are you tall or bent over carrying it? Serene or frenzied? Wobbly or solid? If a responsibility is truly yours to carry, how might you hold it more lightly? And finally, what aspects of childishness are you longing to claim now? Relaxation? Fun? Being held? What else did you forgo that you can recreate for yourself right now? ~ If you are feeling the remnants of parentification within you, if you're hearing the voices of obligation and responding in the same way, please know that you can gradually release yourself from the unfair expectations that were placed upon you - first by others and later by yourself. There is another way of being available to you - a bright, free, empowered You that’s waiting to emerge. May it be so.
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