Building Independence: Teaching Your Child When and How to Ask for Help
By Len Lantz, M.D.
It seems wrong until you think it through: To become independent, you must become good at getting help.
This statement doesn’t seem true to many people until they mull it over long enough, but I promise you that learning to request and receive help is an essential ingredient to the self-sufficiency that I’m referring to as independence.
I’m not talking about extremes, such as living the life of a mountain man in a cabin without electricity or subsisting as a survivalist with a bunker stocked with weapons and canned food. From my perspective, independence involves:
+ Level-headedness and self-control
+ Problem-solving skills and creativity
+ Personal responsibility
+ Effectiveness and success
+ A broad knowledge base with an understanding of systems
+ Knowing when and how to ask for help
Just labeling yourself an independent person does not make it so. Independent people have developed many skills and characteristics that helped them to become and remain independent. Asking for and receiving help is a critical strategy that helped them get there. Learning how to effectively get help from others is a critical skill for kids to learn.
GAINING INDEPENDENCE IS A PART OF DEVELOPMENT
What are the basics of raising a child? You know, the bare minimum. If you had to list only five things, what would they be? Here are some things that crossed my mind:
1. Feed and clothe your child.
2. Don’t beat or berate them.
3. Make sure they brush their teeth and go to school.
4. Let them know they are loved.
5. Have some fun together.
It’s interesting though that doing those basic things for kids won’t really get them ready to enter the world as an adult. Also, it’s not clear that our school systems will teach kids basic living skills. Kids can go to school and never learn how to:
+ Budget or balance their checking account
+ Set boundaries with unhealthy people
+ Present themselves well in a job interview
+ Save and invest money for retirement
Even adults struggle to develop these life skills. People can benefit from books, the internet, and online videos to gain these skills, but often they need more specific help from another person to move beyond the basics. But before you ask for help, you might want to consider a few factors that can affect the experience.
DEVELOPING A GROWTH MINDSET
In building independence, I believe people need to adopt a growth mindset. It is incredibly hard to change behavior if you don’t believe that you can. A growth mindset is about adopting attitudes and beliefs about yourself and others that foster help-seeking behavior. It involves convincing yourself that you can become smarter and better at things even if you aren’t right now. The growth mindset fosters a don’t-quit approach to failures and setbacks in life. It means learning from mistakes, revising your plan, and trying again. Working on your own growth mindset is something that you can model for your kids.
We can help our kids to feel empowered to try, fail, and try again. We do not stop growing and learning, no matter how old we are. There is nearly always someone out there—somewhere—who can help. And we can get help from others in the areas where we are struggling. The book Mindset does an excellent job of providing examples of adopting a growth mindset.
ATTITUDES THAT HOLD KIDS BACK
Some kids really struggle in adopting a growth mindset and find that challenges, setbacks, and failures stop them in their tracks. There are several reasons why kids are unwilling or afraid to try, but most of them stem from avoidance. Common thoughts and attitudes that drive avoidance and interfere with help-seeking and adopting a growth mindset are:
+ I’ll look like a fool.
Counter-thought: “Smart kids know when to ask for help.”
+ People will make fun of me.
Counter-thought: “Most of the time people are not laughed at for asking for help.”
+ I should know this. I’m supposed to know this.
Counter-thought: “Even if I’m supposed to know this, I sometimes forget. I can decide to remember it forever once I re-learn what I need to know.”
+ I need to be the best.
Counter-thought: “The people who are the best at things have learned from their mistakes and disappointments.”
+ I don’t want to feel stupid.
Counter-thought: “I would rather feel embarrassed by asking for help than feel helpless and frustrated by avoiding help.”
+ I don’t want others to see how stupid and incapable I am.
Counter-thought: “I admire people who know how to ask for help and achieve success because of it.”
+ I feel too anxious to ask for help.
Counter-thought: “I’d rather feel anxious in asking for help than feel anxious about giving up on my dreams and goals for myself.”
Did you see yourself in any of the negative thoughts and attitudes above? What we tell ourselves in our heads matters tremendously. When we can change our inner dialogue and become more balanced and understanding of ourselves, we will be happier, less anxious, and more likely to ask for help when we need it. For more information on dealing with negative, self-critical thoughts, please read my article, “Mindfulness – How to Chill Out and Stop Beating Yourself Up” (https://psychiatryresource.com/articles/mindfulness).
MODEL HELP-SEEKING AT HOME
Modeling a help-seeking attitude and growth mindset begins at home. Do a quick self-check. How do I model a growth mindset and help-seeking attitude for my kids when I am struggling and need help? How do I communicate to my kids that I’m there to help them without undermining them or fostering dependency? If you are helping your child with their homework and don’t know the answer, how do you go about getting the answer if you can’t figure it out with available resources?
So, how can you help kids without doing things for them or making them feel stupid? One way is to figure out what level of support they might need from you. There are many different roles that you can take when helping kids figure out problems:
+ Planner – “If that doesn’t work, what is your backup plan?”
+ Technical Support – “Call me if you have a question.”
+ Helper – “I’ll run the mixer and put the cake pans in the oven.”
+ Inspector – “Okay, kids. Before you ride your bikes off the jump you’re building, come get me to check things out.”
+ Supervisor – “I’ll be in the shade over there to keep track of your progress.”
+ Fan – “Come get me when you’re done. I want to see what you’ve made.”
+ Transportation – “If you guys get tired out or if something isn’t going right, call me and I’ll come to get you.”
The other way to help kids is to avoid some basic mistakes. When kids ask for help, don’t blame them, mock them, or do something for them without them watching you and learning how to do it themselves in the future. It’s also helpful to think about helping your children as a process, not a one-time event. Kids remember these experiences and it improves their confidence. The more areas where they feel confident and gain “adult” skills the more they will be encouraged to try more things and not be afraid to ask for help when they need it. They might also try a little harder before asking for help because it’s comforting to know that help is there when you need it.
EXPANDING THE FIELD
Expanding the field means adding more people (or helpers) to a problem that needs to be solved. Even experts need help. I have to connect with other medical and mental health specialists several times each week in my role as a physician, even though I’m already a specialist in psychiatry.
So how can we encourage kids to reach out for help and expand the field in their lives when they need it? It can feel especially hard when kids seem to only be willing to ask for and receive help from their parents. Probably the best place to start is supporting kids to ask for help in their current school classrooms. Once kids master asking for help from their teacher, they can expand to other areas of their lives like coaches, music teachers, etc. Helping your child to reach out to teachers right away and ask for help appropriately is critical. We want our kids to say, “Please show me how to do this math problem so I can do the others,” not “Just tell me the answer.”
You can also practice role-playing with your child in interacting with teachers and other adults, and if your child finds that a particular person is not helpful, then you can start brainstorming together on who to reach out to next to help them get the help they need.
YOU CAN HELP YOUR CHILD DEVELOP SELF-SUFFICIENCY BY ENCOURAGING HELP-SEEKING
Imagine your child as a confident, grounded, and independent young adult. How did they get there? Kids who have learned to ask for and receive help have greater resilience, healthier relationships, and greater success in their education and later careers. They have a sense of competence that builds confidence, and they don’t feel awkward about reaching out for help when they have reached the limits of their knowledge, education, and available resources. You can be the person who helps your child get on the path to becoming an independent adult by modeling and encouraging them in appropriate help-seeking behavior.