How to Help Without Over Helping

  • by

What does it mean to be successful? As a parent or teacher? To your child?

Today we’re going to explore what true success means and why you’re probably getting in your own way (and maybe your child’s way too).

I was recently coaching a parent and her 7th grade son. The homework routine was a huge source of frustration for both of them. Every night the mom and son would argue, especially about the math homework that was assigned nightly and collected on Friday. The other classes assigned homework once in a while, and he did those assignments with less struggle. But math was every night. It didn’t make sense to the mom that something that was consistently expected would be harder to do than the once in a while assignments. That is, until we thought about the brain: new/novel things alert the brain and give a cocktail of hormones I refer to as focus juice. When the human brain was evolving, these hormones were designed to help us focus and attend to changes in our environment, to keep us alive. Now, they are also evident when something new happens and we shift focus to it. So, by brain science, her son’s homework struggles were making sense.

The mom and son were also developing a pattern: Three nights a week they’d argue and avoid but the night before the homework was due, the mom would bail the son out with too much help. They were struggling between too much help and too little help. mom didn’t want her child to fail but she also didn’t want to make him too dependent. Sound familiar? I think as well-intended helping adults, we see two options: help (and potentially create dependence) or not help (and somehow our kids will figure it all out).

But…there is a third option! Strategize the struggle! Find your child’s weak spots and strategize ways to support or augment, together!

Today I want to teach you: Success means knowing your areas of need and getting and using help. It doesn’t mean you never need help.

A lot of our frustration with our loved ones with EF deficits comes from being unsure how much help to give; we go between feeling bad that they struggle (so we do things for them) and feeling like they just should be independent (giving no help at all, but maybe yelling or nagging a bit). Often, we are focused on the task but not the process. For example, we want our daughter to feed the dogs every day on time. If she’s struggling, it’s likely not with the feeding but the remembering, initiating, executing…you get the idea. And I can bet that there are other similar tasks that challenge her as well. So, if we focus on supporting the process, we can help improve lots of challenging spots for our kids!

Before we move on, we need to make an agreement: STOP SHOULDING all over the place. “I shouldn’t have to…” “You should be able to….” Stop. Just. Stop.

When challenges are physical, like a mobility issue, we don’t should, we strategize. No one berates a child for not being able to walk when he or she has a disability. Yet, this happens a lot to kids with EF challenges because we can’t physically see their brain differences. One way around this is, when you hear yourself say or think “should,” try picturing the challenge in terms of a brain difference and approach from that perspective. I can imagine your focus will be on supports, not blame.

So, in my recent coaching with the mom and son, we found them in deep should. Heh.  Mom was stuck on “You should do your math homework every night.” The son was struggling with focus on a mundane task, and he knew if he waited her out, she’d bail him out on Thursday anyway. They both needed to ditch their pattern and strategize the struggle.

So, instead of the dance between too much and too little help, we took a closer look at which EF skills could be missing. In this case, her son was having a hard time with initiation, attention, and self-regulation, and a lot of his struggles were related to the lack of “focus juice” his brain produced for the task. Our strategy was to “un-boring” the task by:

*Using a pre-agree reward

*Making a new study space

*Adding some competition, like beat the clock

*Trying a body double (and making one “serious hour” observed by everyone in the family)

*Agreeing that there would be celebrations for progress but no bail outs on Thursdays. (we are focused on the process, not the task)

These strategies worked because:

*They didn’t isolate the son (he could do these things while still blending in)

*they created a sustainable routine

*They required the right level of commitment from everyone (no arguing, no resentment, no doubts on the help level or shoulds)

When you strategize the struggle, you build habits of success!

No one is independent and perfect so as not to ever need help. Millionaires need mechanics. Chefs need kitchen support.

Childhood is the only time we’re expected to be good at everything, even with EF deficits. This is impossible and unfair.

Here are a few things to remember when you strategize the struggle” And you can find these as a printable reminder at

  1. Make the solution sustainable
  2. Involve your child
  3. Don’t isolate your child in an attempt to help
  4. Plan to automate or replace human help (have a plan to secure consistency that is not too reliant on any one other person).
  5. Think backwards from your should…what skills or process could be missing?

Time to grab your lovely child for this week’s pep talk:

Hey kid!

We all need help sometimes. It’s ok to need help.

Childhood is the only time you’re expected to be good at everything. Do you think your parents remember all the algebra equations and can a run a 10-minute mile and can write a 4-page essay on literature? Not to diss your parents, but you get the idea. When you’re in school, we’re trying to cram everything into your brains. We want to prepare you for anything, and that’s good. But what if your brain isn’t ready? Or you need more time? Maybe you need a different way of explaining your learning?

Needing help doesn’t mean you’re dumb or you’re failing. Lots of famous people have needed help over the years.

If you worry about others making fun of you when you get help, I have two things to say:

  1. Most people don’t notice much more than themselves. (and we’re all worried about what others think)
  2. You can get yourself ready with come-backs if anyone says something to you. For example, I heard one of my students laughing at another student who needed help with math facts. So the student said back to her, “Everyone has something hard for them. Mine’s math. What’s yours?” It was such a quick response that the student teasing him just shut up.

If you have a physical difference and someone points it out, you could try a come back like, “These braces help me walk. Maybe your doctor can get you something so you can be nice.”

This week, your grown up is going to be teaming up with you to be sure they’re helping you at just the right level. I think you’ll have a great time with this week’s challenge! Talk to you soon, my dear!