Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a Clinical Psychologist, about how to raise independent kids and how our parenting decisions today may affect our children as adults.
Question: My five-and-a half year old son seems overly needy and doesn’t want to do anything for himself. What can I do to help him become more independent? ~ Ann, Austin, TX
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Often when a child seems overly needy for his age it may be because the kid isn’t getting enough of a psychological or emotional connection with the parent. Or he may be getting a fair share of attention but wants even more. So he’s using his dependency on his parents to get it.
This is really not a good thing; it’s fundamentally an unhealthy way to get your needs met.
Molly: Not to mention this behavior must be really annoying for his parents!
Dr. Susan Rutherford: One of the negative effects is the needy behavior annoys the parents. Then the kid feels badly about himself, and then he becomes even more needy, because he’s not feeling good about himself. The entire family can get caught up in a bad cycle.
As a parent, you would want to start addressing this type of behavior as soon as you see some sort of a pattern developing.
Molly: How do you address it?
Dr. Susan Rutherford: There are a couple of things a parent can do to help the child overcome his neediness.
You’ll want to start in stages. For example, if the child says, “I want you to help me get dressed,” even though he is perfectly capable of dressing himself, this might be a good place to start.
Already you know this is a pattern for the child to not want to do something for himself the parent thinks he should be doing. So, the parent might say, “Let’s do it together today, and then tomorrow you can pick out your own clothes and get dressed by yourself.” You make it a joint endeavor at first with the intention of moving the child toward doing it by himself.
If he says, “I don’t want to, I want you to do it,” which is likely to be the first response, you shrug and smile and say, “I’m so sorry. I’m glad to help you with this today, but we have to do it together.
You’re a big boy now and you want to be able to do all the fun things big kids do, so you need to act like a big boy and get yourself dressed.”
Don’t give in. If he has a tantrum and demands, “You need to do it for me,” then simply walk away.
Molly: What if the response is, “I’m tired. Can you do it for me?”
Dr. Susan Rutherford: The parent should just say, “I’m sorry you’re tired. If you’re that tired, maybe you need to go to your room and take a nap? If you want to get dressed, I’m more than happy to help you with it, but we have to do it together.”
The goal is to encourage him to begin to have a more active role in taking care of himself. Of course, this technique can apply to all kinds of things, like making the bed in the morning. You can do it together at first, and then transition to where he does it by himself.
Molly: At some point you stop doing it together, and they start doing it by themselves?
Dr. Susan Rutherford: Yes, right, though some kids will do it by themselves from the beginning, because they really enjoy the mastery and sense of accomplishment from doing a task all by themselves.
With a very dependent child, you’ll almost always have to start off doing a task together. To get him to do the task all by himself straight away is an unrealistic expectation, and then it can escalate into a real battle and take on a life of its own.
Parents want to be careful not to spark off a series of never-ending battles between parent and child.
Instead, consider teaching him the art of negotiation and compromise. Try giving a little on your end and encouraging him to give a little on his end and meeting in the middle. This is not a bad model for helping him learn how to work with other people throughout his life.
Maybe the compromise is mom helps him pick out his clothes, and then he gets himself dressed before breakfast. As he becomes more comfortable with this bit of independent action, he can move on to choosing his own clothes as well.
Molly: What happens if you don’t address these sorts of issues when kids are young?
Dr. Susan Rutherford: The long-term results may be the child grows up and shifts his dependencies onto people other than the parents, like friends, teachers, girlfriends…
Too much neediness can be very annoying, and people often find they do not want to be around a very needy person. Worse, the needy person ends up not having any sense of mastery or control over his or her life, leading to generalized feelings of incompetency and inadequacy, neither of which feed into building an emotionally stable and competent adult.
Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish “Conversations with My Mother,” an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU) and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver. Contact – Website – Facebook – Twitter
©2014 Molly Skyar