How to Help an Overly Dependent Child

If you have read our past posts you will have noted that we are big proponents of independence and responsibility. Developing these skills can boost children’s confidence and will give them the tools that they need in school, in life, and later on as adults. When these skills aren’t developed, challenges can arise that impede them from developing into self-sufficient adults. 

A recent trend that we have noticed is overly dependent children. In these instances, children have a hard time trying things on their own, they give up rather quickly, and they immediately ask for help from an adult. In the classroom, these students tend to interrupt lessons or directions being given by the teacher because they fear not knowing what to do or getting it wrong. Even when it is a simple task, they might immediately raise their hand and ask for help because they lack confidence in themselves. Other signs of an overly dependent child, is when children don’t try new things and won’t attempt a problem, project, or activity if they do not have an adult nearby to ask help from. They fear taking risks because they are uncomfortable with not knowing if they will succeed. 

Children adapt to their environment and if adults in their life do everything for them, they begin to rely on that and become overly dependent. They know that someone will come and “rescue” them so they learn that they don’t need to try on their own. This is a challenge in a classroom where a teacher or two have to teach, lead, and support many children. 

Not to worry, it’s never too late to implement strategies if your child has become overly-dependent. Here are some things that can help make a difference:

Let them answer their own questions

If you notice your child asks you questions for everything, you can turn it back on them and guide them in a way that will help them get to the answer on their own. Asking questions like “What do you think?” or “How do you think we can figure that out?” This can help empower children and help them develop self-efficacy. 

Be patient

In the moment it might seem easier to complete a task for your child. A little patience and time can be extremely beneficial. When children learn to do things for themselves they develop high self-efficacy and become empowered.

Let them do their homework independently

When working in the classroom students are expected to complete their work independently. Teachers walk around and assist as needed, but they do not sit with only one child, if you sit with your child and complete their homework with them, they get used to having an adult nearby. Set up an area where they can work independently and you can support as needed.

Practice listening

When your child comes to you with a problem, you don’t always have to fix it. Be there to listen and ask questions, but don’t feel you have to rescue them all the time. When children learn to solve age appropriate problems on their own, it will equip them with the tools to solve bigger problems later on.

If you have gotten used to over-functioning for your child, it can be hard to make changes, it might get worse before it gets better, but it will be very beneficial in the long run to give your child space to grow. It can help to make gradual changes to help your child become more independent.

Independence & Children

It’s time to talk about raising more independent kids! Teachers and parents need to work together to develop a sense of independence in our children. It is essential for their development and their future. We need to remember that children will grow up, and it is our job, as parents and teachers, to help them become independent and successful adults. Independence gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility and will help them grow into a more balanced child and will make them better prepared for the real world. Not only that, it will free up some of your time as a parent and some of our time as teachers.

We currently live in a time where it is becoming more common for kids to rely on adults to make every decision for them, to speak up for them if a challenge arises, and to save them from every mistake. Or even worse, not even allow them to make mistakes. Adults inherently want to protect children from all the harm that we conceive there is in the world, however by protecting them from everything and doing everything for them, we are taking away their sense of responsibility, problem solving skills, and independence. The very things that that will set them up for success in the real world.

According to Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford Dean, overparenting leaves kids unprepared for college. We happen to agree, and moreover we feel overparenting can leave kids underprepared for elementary school too. We see it in our classrooms on a daily basis with students not carrying their own backpacks, parents unpacking them for them, parents turning in their homework, forgotten items constantly dropped off throughout the school day, and never ending emails from parents to do and tell children a variety of things. Parents have constant access to their child throughout the day and it is playing a role in delayed independence in kids.

Children start to naturally develop independence at two years old.The National Association for the Education of Young Children give tips on how you can start that development at a very young age. It takes time and effort, but will pay off immensely when it is time to send your child to school. If slowly each year you continue to give your child more responsibility, your child will become increasingly more independent.

We understand that it is difficult seeing your baby grow and become more independent. Sometimes it feels like it happens too fast and we try to hold onto the idea of our children as the babies they once were. However, if we continue to do this, we set them up for failure, so here are some recommendations to help your child be more independent at home and at school.

Drop Off

Drop your child off at school, and let them walk into their classrooms on their own. Starting in kindergarten they are capable of walking into their classes independently and following the morning procedures. By allowing them the autonomy to do this, children begin to feel responsible and capable. Over the years, we have seen many stressful morning drop offs whereupon the child cries and the parents coddle them in attempt to soothe the child. This often heightens the situation and does the opposite of what is intended. We promise that once you drop off your child, she or he will calm down and join in on the fun of school. Usually within five minutes.

Backpacks and Supplies

Let your child carry their own backpack. We see many parents continue to carry the backpacks of older kids. Let’s set them up early on to carry their own things. They can do it, and again it makes them feel empowered to be able to do it.

Unpacking and Packing

Put the responsibility on your child to unpack and pack their own backpack. If you develop a routine and have a school spot at home, this will save a lot of time and headache in the long run. Have a basket where they can place school papers for you to look through or have a special time when you go through it together. Items that go into the backpack should only be placed by the child. If they didn’t put it in, they most likely won’t know or remember it is there. We understand that it takes longer for parents to ask their children to put things in their backpack, and by doing it for them, you are saving time in the short term. Something that takes longer now, will set them up for success in the future.

Homework and Projects

Let your child do their homework and projects on their own. Of course you can assist them when they have a question or help them if they need an extra hand putting a project together. Don’t let a little hand become a takeover. Projects should be their ideas and their hard work. When we do our children’s work for them, we are sending a message that they hear loud and clear: yours isn’t good enough. This has a major effect on their confidence and risk taking and they will fear doing things independently.

Chores

Having chores at home is a classic way to develop responsibility and independence in children. They are capable of much more than we think and in the younger years, they actually really love to be a helper. For more information on age appropriate chores check out House Wife How-Tos: Chores That Kids Can Do.

Getting Dressed

At 4 and 5 years old children can start to get themselves dressed with limited parent involvement. A skill that is easily taught and goes a long way, is how to turn an article of clothing that is inside out to right side in. We would think that this would be second nature, but it is a skill that needs to be taught to school age kids. Imagine 20 kids trying to get one teacher to help them put on their jackets in the winter. That’s when we stop the main curriculum and have a “how to put on your jacket tutorial.”

These skills are really important for development and should not fall by the wayside. We already know that academics are important, but again kids need a balance. These skills are essential to help your children in the real world. And these are just some ways to help develop more independent kids. Certainly, there are many more ways to teach independence to children, and every child is unique. We understand that if your child has any special needs that not all of these things will work for your family and you have to do what works for your personal situation. We are also not trying to shame anyone or say that you need to be perfectly doing these things all the time. We want to help educate and partner with you to help raise more balanced and independent kids in this very busy, ever changing world we live in. When studies show that kids are increasingly more dependent, not developing basic responsibility, and unprepared for the basic rigors of life after high school, we need to take a step back, get to the cause, and make some changes. Even if it feels like these changes are going back to a simpler time, they are skills that hold strong in society today.

Screen Time and Children

21st Century children have never known a world without smartphones, the internet, tablets, or social media. When we first began teaching, a little over a decade ago, we had to teach children how to use a mouse, navigate on a computer, and introduce tablets. We no longer have to do that. Many toddlers know how to turn on smartphones or tablets, and open to the home screen. They can even navigate Youtube to look for cartoons or videos of other children opening toys. Most, if not all, of our students come into our classes with the knowledge of how to use technology. Often times, it is second nature to them. Devices and social networks are changing childhood in extreme ways and we need to find strategies to help our children develop into healthy and balanced individuals.

The students that come into our classrooms are vastly different than the students we taught at the beginning of our careers. We have noticed that many children today are use to constant visual stimulation and instant gratification. They are not sure what to do with themselves when they do not have a device and many feel uncomfortable being bored. Their social emotional skills are underdeveloped because kids are spending more time on devices and less time playing and interacting with other children.

We are not doctors or psychologists (yet) and we cannot diagnose or treat people. And while there may be a variety of reasons for this shift in children, we believe that the biggest factor in this drastic and rapid change in our children is technology. It is our responsibility to find ways to both educate kids on healthy technology use and offset the effects of this digital revolution.

Now this post is not about how horrible technology is. In fact, we love technology, we use it in our classrooms to augment and enhance lessons, look up information for the class, and connect our students to the world. Yet, we also incorporate cutting, glueing, writing with pencils, cursive, coloring, dancing, performing, and most importantly playing and social skills. This is because there has to be balance in our classroom between technology and real world experiences. Our big theme is balance for children. We advocate balance for children, and the area of technology is no exception in and out of the classroom.

According to Dr. Tovah Klein, an expert on early childhood development, the more you use a device to calm your kids down, the less they are able to do it for themselves because they do not learn that skill. If devices are used all the time by children, they will not actually learn how to socialize, how to behave in different places and with a variety of people. They will not learn how to be bored and they will not be able to figure out a way to entertain themselves. If they have constant access to everything on the internet, they will not learn how to be creative themselves. They will not learn inventive play because they won’t have to. We need to make sure we are creating the space for them to do these things because it doesn’t organically happen like it did when we were kids.

What we can do as parents and teachers:

  • Limit Screen time
    • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving
    • Find media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms
    • Model device free for them
    • Do not use devices in restaurants and stores
    • Let your child be bored so that they can play and develop social skills and creativity
  • Teach proper device use
    • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
    • When they use a device, interact with them. Educational apps are great, we use them!

What society can do:

  • Stop judging parents over a crying child
  • Stop giving dirty looks to parents and families on airplanes
  • Stop expecting kids to be silent at restaurants and in public places

There is an immense amount of pressure put on parents today to know it all, do it all, and to have the perfect happy family. Kids have emotions and no matter what we do, we can’t control when they throw a fit, are feeling sad, have an outburst in a restaurant or make a scene in a grocery store. When kids are not quiet and perfect, parents are judged by society. It has become routine to throw a device at a child to keep them quiet in a public space. Let’s work together to make it okay for kids to make noise and be kids. Let’s not be so judgmental when we see a struggling parent or a misbehaving child. We don’t know the full story. What we do know is that these devices that we use to keep our kids quiet are having a real strain on our children and society as a whole. We all play a role whether we have children, are in education, work in the tech industry, or are a childless bystander. We all have an obligation to help kids navigate a world that has been revolutionized by digital media.

Additional Resources

Screen Time Labs

Common Sense

ABC News

Dr. Tovah Klein

American Academy of Pediatrics

CNN

Time

Balanced Children Have Balanced Parents

Bringing balance to our lives and to our children isn’t always easy. We have to be mindful, make choices to let go of certain expectations, possibly change routines, and most importantly be aware that we can’t and shouldn’t do it all.

Children Mimic Us
As educators, we spend most of our days getting to know our students at school. We become familiar with their personalities. By the end of September each year, we can confidently identify if a child is going to have a fantastic day, or if one might need extra high fives and check-ins. As educators and curious observers of the world around us, it has always been so interesting to meet parents after becoming so familiar with our students. We recognize where a student might get their long eyelashes from, their cleft chin, or that one curl that has a mind of its own. We hear familiar giggles, expressions and sense of humor. It is so exciting to recognize ourselves in our children. What an astounding feat it is, to leave an imprint of ourselves for generations to come!

Apart from the genetic and biological aspect of human development, children learn by observing their parents. Parents are their first exposure to human behavior, relationships and language. There is no one so perfect and so right in our children’s eyes than their caretakers. Think of the times when children are learning to speak or walk. Before they even begin the actual act of making sounds, they hear it; before they try to figure out how to use their legs, they have been observing their parents amble around all day. This observe and do pattern does not stop! It continues long after they have moved out of the nest.

Now, you may not want to, but imagine one of those extra busy mornings. One where you feel rushed and anxious. You have to get yourself ready for work, get the children ready for school or daycare. Not to mention make and eat breakfast, make sure that everyone has a lunch, and make it to school on time for drop off. If you have ever experienced this stress and anxiety, then there is a possibility that your child was experiencing this with you. Children are very good at identifying and taking in the energy of grownups. When you are unbalanced, anxious, stressed, overworked, and have nothing left to give, they feel and exhibit that too.

When life is catching up with you and you are starting to feel this way, it is time to slow down. If there is too much on your plate, you need to prioritize the most important things and let go of other things. On those mornings, hours, or days when you are feeling overly stressed and frustrated, stop, take a breath and know that everything and everyone will be fine. If you have a partner, it will help to share your stressors with them and come up with a game plan together. It also helps to talk to other parents that are also feeling these same stressors. Find your community of like minded parents and don’t let go.  Remember raising kids is a series of stages, however overwhelmed you are feeling at that moment, know that it will pass.

Focusing on Flexibility
The most important life lesson that should be visited and revisited in the classroom and at home is flexibility. Assemblies do not always follow the schedule. Dad can’t always do preschool drop off. Things do not go the way they are planned. This is an illusion that we tell ourselves when things are going well. In fact, plans work because of the wiggle room that accompanied it. In the classroom when the technology does not work, we copied the wrong papers, or the glue bottles dried up, we often say “C’est la vie.” Such is life. There are things that are out of our control in our classrooms and in our homes. Feeling frustration and anger is normal, but understanding that that frustration and anger will not fix the problem is incredibly important for our children to learn. Being flexible, regrouping, and figuring out how to move on is a skill that parents and teachers need to model for children.

Benefits of Balance
Parents that are balanced have balanced children. If you and your household are unbalanced, then your child will be too. We have had students that continuously forget their homework, misplace their workbooks or folders, have 7 water bottles in their cubbies, come to school without any of their supplies, or have big emotional reactions when things do not go the way they wanted or thought they would go. There are times when learning differences and special needs are the reason for such emotions. However, being around parents that are over worked, spread out too thin, and stressed out plays a big factor into any child’s daily performance. These emotions and behaviors manifest themselves in children too.

On the other hand, students who have parents that have a work-life balance, take on challenges with a positive attitude, and are present in the moment, often thrive in our classrooms. They tackle challenges calmly and cooly, they have better resilience, and a stronger sense of self. These students do well in our classrooms, the school yard, and with friends.

There is no way that stresses can be eliminated in our lives. We deal with different kinds of stressors all day long. However you deal with these pressures in your life, always take the time to talk to your children about it.  This, after all, is talking about balance. It is OK for your child to see you frustrated or irritated. These are all very real emotions that they will encounter and feel in their lifetime. What is important is that you address it with them before they take these observations elsewhere. Just as you would walk through each step of what your doing with an infant to expose them to language, walk your child through your thought process when you reacted so emotionally to an unsavory event. Get them involved by asking them how they thought the reaction helped or hurt the situation. It shows them that it is OK to react to frustrations and reflect on better ways to deal with these unexpected situations.

Being a parent is an all day every day job without any sick or vacation days. Everyone is doing the best they can. If you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and unbalanced, sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that it is okay to slow down, cancel plans, and just take some time to get things back in order. It will make a more balanced life for you and for your children. The key is to not be perfect all the time, but to have an awareness when you need to create more balance.