How to help kids solve their own problems

It can be tough to figure out when to help with a conflict, and when to let your child deal with it.
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We all want the best for our children, but in our zeal to help, we may hover a little too closely and earn the dreaded title of “helicopter parent.” Toronto family therapist Jennifer Kolari defines the term as stepping in and making decisions for your children that they should make on their own. Most parents are acting in a well-intentioned attempt to shield kids from failure or stress, but the effects can be serious. “I see anxiety skyrocketing among kids and increasing difficulty with emotional regulation,” says Kolari. “Kids fall apart when something doesn’t go their way because parents have removed normal, healthy adverse experiences. If you fix everything, when your kid’s ice cream falls on the floor it actually will be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them and they’ll react accordingly.”

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But that line between standing up for your child and standing in the way of his independence isn’t always obvious. Saskatoon mom Angela McKenzie* struggles to navigate these murky waters with her 10-year-old son, Greg.* “He’s not my baby anymore,” she says. “I know I need to give him his own voice and help him through things instead of fixing them for him, but it’s not easy.”

Recently, Greg came home from hockey devastated. After trying a new position, he felt the coaches and players were upset with him for making a mistake. “I hate seeing him like that, so my first instinct was to call the coach,” she admits. Instead, they talked it out and decided together that Greg would speak to the coach and ask for his old position back. “I said he had to do the talking, but I would be there if he needed me, and it went great.”

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When helping prepare your child for a tough conversation, Kolari recommends role-playing and letting the child rehearse what to say. “Also, flip the roles so that you’re the kid and he’s the teacher or friend, so he can hear how things sound from the other person’s perspective.” Help him choose the right time and place, as these conversations are best held without an audience. Sharing conflict resolution tips with your child—stay on topic, keep your voice calm, use “I” statements—can also be beneficial.

If your child is having an issue with a teacher, you could send a note asking if they could speak privately that day, which gives the teacher the heads-up that he or she needs to provide that opportunity, but leaves the onus on the child to communicate the concern. “It shows your child that you’re going to be there for her, but you’re not going to jump in and rescue her,” says Kolari.

Sometimes it’s necessary for parents to step in, especially if the child has made attempts and there’s no resolution. Kolari feels you should also take action in an ongoing situation where rights are infringed, something is completely unfair, or someone is taking too much power and you can see the distress in your child. If it’s a classroom issue, speak to the teacher before going up the chain of command. Kolari suggests these guiding questions for parents to ask themselves when deciding whether to get involved: Is this my child’s issue or mine? Is anyone going to get physically hurt? Can my child learn something from this?

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McKenzie took action when a boy was saying rude things and being mean to Greg on the bus. “My son told him to stop, tried ignoring it, and reported it to the bus driver and teacher. The principal spoke to the child and it still continued. I finally had enough and phoned his parents to let them know what was going on.” While the issue hasn’t yet been perfectly resolved, McKenzie is glad she made the call.

“When to push and when to protect is a continuous struggle,” says Kolari. “But you’re a good parent just for thinking about that.”

* name has been changed

Expert tip: While it may be tempting, family therapist Jennifer Kolari says that a parent shouldn’t speak directly to someone else’s child about a social issue. “That causes all kinds of problems, and you’re going to get a mama bear calling you on the phone. If there’s a trend that you need to address, do it through the school or directly through the parents.”

A version of this article appeared in our May 2014 issue with the headline “Problem solvers,” p. 58.

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