We can all visualize the modern phenomenon known as “helicopter parenting.” A dad crouches on a sidewalk to tie his 10-year-old’s shoes. A mom takes the helm of her daughter’s science fair project, hoping her little prodigy will snag first prize. Parents join forces to pen their kids’ unbelievably poignant college admissions essays.
Secretly, you may wonder how much helicoptering damage you’re doing to your child, but if your child has a disability, knowing when to help and protect and when to step back can be especially confusing. While the protective cocoon that a loving family provides is crucial to physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, gaining some sense of independence is also important for all children – even those with limited abilities.
“From the moment a child is born, she will start discovering, exploring and exercising her personal power, which is her own unique expression in the world,” says Estela De Wulf, a certified parenting coach and educator who works with families at Roots & Wings in Malibu and at her private office. “Realizing a child can positively impact her reality and the reality of those around her through choices and actions is essential for her to thrive.”
Keeping them safe while pushing boundaries
While exploring ways to help kids with disabilities gain a sense of independence, safety should always be the top priority, says Gary Brown, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in West L.A. who also has experience as a classroom teacher. “If you are going to err, it makes sense to err on the side of being more attentive, because there are direct health and safety issues faced by children with special needs,” he says.
At the same time, try to step back and analyze real safety concerns versus your fears and anxieties. “As a parent, you may also want to acknowledge having some extra anxiety because of your situation, and that’s understandable,” Brown says. “But we don’t want to be so anxious that we transmit it to our kids and make them feel they are not adequate.”
So, what do you do when the overwhelming urge to jump in and take over hits you? De Wulf suggests first asking these questions of yourself: What am I really afraid of, and how realistic is that fear? “Then ask yourself what you could do to empower your child in that situation instead of protect him from it,” she says.
Although their daughter Mimi is only 2, Rachel Neumann of Altadena says she and her husband put a lot of effort into creating safe spaces for her to explore. Because Mimi was born with CDKL5 deficiency disorder, which impacts her fine motor, verbal and other abilities, the couple has made specific choices about where they live and the environment where Mimi spends time, including small details such as placing a yoga bolster by the couch to help her safely climb up onto it by herself.
“One thing we do to help her be independent is just keep expectations high,” Neumann says. “We have her participate in all tasks, helping her to push her arms through her sleeves when dressing or stand up and bend her legs to help me pull her pants down. She is non-verbal, using a handful of signs, but we definitely know she has the capacity to learn. She is learning on her own timescale and is making amazing progress.”
About those expectations
While Neumann’s philosophy is to keep expectations high, other parents, such as Northridge mom Melissa Zaferis, says she often finds it more manageable to release her expectations on, for example, how neatly her son Alex, a middle school student who has cerebral palsy, will be able to do a task or how long he will stick with it.
“I’m good at giving him the opportunity to try things on his own, but when he truly can’t do something, I find the need to let go of that, too,” Zaferis says. “He may eventually be able to do it on his own if given the chance. But he also may not. The times when he accomplishes something new, and does it independently, I beam with pride and it makes my heart overflow. But I can’t expect him to get it perfect on the first try or to be able to do everything.”
And letting children fail isn’t a bad thing, says Brown. In fact, he encourages allowing them to experience some disappointment and then figure out why a situation went wrong. “We have the intent to prevent our child from suffering by stepping in, but if they don’t learn how to suffer to some extent then they don’t learn to cope with the eventual storms that occur in life. I don’t care who you are, you will have storms, and it helps to learn the skills you need to develop resilience when things don’t go your way.”
Brown’s guideline for parents is 80 percent success and 20 percent failure. “If you want your children to be happy, work to help them find this balance,” he says. “Let them try tasks you’re not sure they can do, along with ones you think they can accomplish, to let them experience setbacks and spark moments of success. Even if a child isn’t ambulatory, little challenges where he can succeed will provide psychological wins.”
Self-reliance: a daily practice
A conscious effort to teach self-reliance is the goal of Miriam Snyder, mother of Kahlan, 15, who has autism. Snyder is currently experimenting with letting her teen handle tasks such as money management. “We want Kahlan to learn how to live independently, so it’s been a lot of gift-card shopping and calculator using,” she says.
And while she and her husband may itch to interfere when watching Kahlan falter, Snyder says this new phase is going well. “We know Mom and Dad should not be hovering over purchases at the checkout,” she says. “In the past, we would have talked through it a lot more and tried to do more hand-holding when it comes to money.”
As children grow, how parents teach independence needs to change as well, and parents should constantly re-evaluate what their children are ready to handle on their own. “It is common that, out of habit or automatism, adults continue doing for children things they are already perfectly capable of doing for themselves,” says De Wulf.
Crafting a language of faith
Adopt an encouragement-based communication style with your child, such as asking, “What do you think would be a good solution for this situation?” or saying, “I have seen you do this before, I am sure you can do it again.” Another suggestion is to offer some support or limited help to get the child going on the task. De Wulf suggests saying, “I am happy to help you after you have first tried to do it by yourself,” or “How about I put on one shoe and you put on the other?”
“Children’s faith in themselves is directly influenced by the faith they feel the adults in their lives have in them,” says De Wulf.
Keeping it real
Letting go so that our children can fly – in whatever way is healthy and possible for them – is a worthy goal, but just as parents help their children find a balance between expectations and reality, they must remember to do the same for themselves.
For all Neumann’s independence teaching and planning, a simple trip to the store can send them all reeling back to reality. “It can be so much work to get out of the house, and there is often so much screaming that I don’t know how to solve,” she says. “I have definitely gotten looks from other parents.”
Sometimes she is able to remind Mimi of her coping skills in these situations, and it helps; while at other times, no amount of reminding and planning will do, and it is utter meltdown. On those days, Neumann or her husband know to hover just enough to scoop Mimi up and get her home as quickly as possible – where she can practice her developing skills all over again.
Natalie Hammer Noblitt is a local writer and mother of three.