When parents’ best intentions don’t deliver the best result

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School has started, and parents are desperately trying to parent their kids out the door. I picture moms and dads shaking their heads, wondering if it’s too late to return them to sender. “Sorry, this parenting thing isn’t working out! How long is the return window, again? Honey, did you keep the receipt?”

Seriously, we’d never return our children. We’ve loved them, given them pieces of our hearts, and without hesitation done the unimaginable. Cleaning up messy diapers, arranging play dates, vetting pediatricians, reviewing schools, emailing teachers, and driving them to school when there’s a vague threat of rain in the forecast. This is parenting!

As children get older, we may fumble a bit as we approach the line between providing appropriate guidance and support, and letting our kids figure things out.

This is especially true of kids who struggle with the weight of extra burdens. Anxiety, sadness, trouble eating and other mental health symptoms propel parents to stretch that extra bit, circle the wagons a bit tighter, and hunt for the best interventions for their kids. This is also parenting!

When does that parenting become too much?

“Too much” means parents have somehow crossed that vague line where good parenting stops and accommodating behavior begins.

Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at Yale’s Child Study Center and creator of the parent-based SPACE program, says that changing a parent’s response to their child’s or adolescent’s anxiety-based behaviors results in powerful change for the entire family. Research on this theory bears that out; when parents change how they address a child’s anxiety, it changes how the child manages him/herself.

Does this mean parents caused their child’s problems? Nope. It means parents loved their children, worked to guide them, and stepped in where help was needed. That was the right thing to do.

Addressing parents’ accommodation means figuring out ways to change how parents provide help to their children. Remember, offering love and support doesn’t need to change. Instead, interventions on accommodation work to change how and when that support is offered. We could all use help with that.

I’d say more, but it’s time to send my three kids to school. I’ll be pacing downstairs, trying not to panic as they get ready for a new year of challenges. And you had better believe that I’ll be mentally digging in my purse, looking for the receipt, just in case this parenting thing doesn’t work out.

Skills group for parents

CEBTOhio offers a weekly skills group for parents who are struggling to figure out how to help a child in need. For more information, visit the Workshops and Skills Groups page.


About the Author:

Amy Kalasunas, LPCC-S, NCC, is Chief Operating Officer and Director of DBT Services at CEBTOhio. A DBT Linehan Board-Certified Clinician, she is an experienced teacher and sought-after speaker on implementation of effective evidence-based treatment.