195: Supporting vs. Enabling with The Behavior Revolution

195: Supporting vs. Enabling with The Behavior Revolution

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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The difference between supporting a child and enabling a child is often a very fine line when you’re talking about neurodivergent kids, who need extra support. Plus, busy, overwhelmed parents often default to enabling because it’s just easier to do it yourself a lot of the time and you’re on auto-pilot in survival mode yourself. So how do you parent more intentionally and as a supporter? 

In this episode of the Beautifully Complex Podcast, Sarah Wayland, Ph.D. and I discuss the difference between supporting and enabling, when enabling is ok, how to be intentional about defaulting to supporting, and the consequences of enabling too much. 


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My Guest

We’re Penny and Sarah, parenting coaches who help neurodiverse families like yours understand your child’s neurology and behavior, and shift your parenting to help your child thrive — without the frustration of trying to figure it out on your own. We’re also moms of boys with ADHD and/or autism, so we get it. We live it, too.



Sarah Wayland 0:03

It's so easy to trip over from support to enabling, because our kids grow and learn and change, so something they couldn't do, you know, a month ago, they can now do just fine. And maybe we haven't adjusted our own expectations.

Penny Williams 0:25

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast on this episode, Sarah Wayland. And I, as the behavior revolution, are going to tackle enabling versus supporting I think a lot of parents get confused in this area. And the distinction is super important. So it's definitely a timely topic that I think is going to benefit you and your kid, maybe your classroom, even if we have some teachers listening. So with that, Sarah, where do you want to start maybe just describing what we feel like the differences between supporting and enabling would be a good jumping off point?

Sarah Wayland 1:29

Sure. I'll tell you what I think and then you can correct me.

Penny Williams 1:34

I think you got that backwards.

Sarah Wayland 1:35

I don't. But for me, supporting is providing enough support for your child that they are able to do something that might have been too hard for them to do without your help. So thinking about how much support they need, but not too much, when you move into too much where you're basically doing it for them, and also not sending them the message that you think they're competent to do it, then that would move into enabling.

Penny Williams 2:08

Yeah, enabling is definitely doing for, in my opinion, also. And I call myself a reformed enabler, but then I say, oh, maybe not all the way reformed. Typically, I have to take that back. Sometimes it's hard. It's really hard because enabling is so much easier for a parent, typically, at least in the short run in the long term. It's not. But in the short term enabling means why can just do it for them and get it done? Rather than try to teach a skill or wait for their timing? Or, you know, ask 20 times, right, right. That's why I think parents fall into that enabling trap so easily, is because it's just easier and more efficient, sometimes if we just do for them. And then, you know, supporting, I always think about the word scaffolding, because it helps me sort of visualize what that support is. And my husband and I have built a house. So we've had lots of experience on scaffolding. So for me, that's like a really good visual representation of that. But I always think about the fact that support is helping them to get it done themselves, versus just completely doing it for them. And they have no sort of stake in the game. They have no, nothing within the task of the process that they're participating in. But that idea of the scaffolding, I think really helps us to see that we are sort of giving a skeleton, like we're holding them up in a way and supporting them to be able to do something. Yeah. And that durability that you mentioned, is so vitally important, that we're really thinking about that as parents, right. Before we decide what our role in our child's role is, really, we need to figure out what's doable. And what's not, don't you think?

Sarah Wayland 3:59

Oh, for sure. And I think it's that balance that leads, it's so easy to trip over from support to enabling because our kids grow and learn and change. So something they couldn't do, you know, a month ago, they can now do just fine. And maybe we haven't adjusted our own expectations. Yeah. But also sometimes the demands that are placed on them are so much higher than they can cope with. So, you know, my favorite example of this one is homework, you know, so let's say your kid brings home, their math homework, and they haven't the foggiest clue how to do it, and you're trying to get dinner on the table, and they're wailing and moaning about their math homework in the other room. And, you know, when my son was little, I actually used to just go in and reteach the concepts to him, which was, you know, he was doing it himself and he was learning but What was bad about that is his teacher didn't realize that he wasn't learning during her class. So she thought he was learning. And at some point during the year, I was just like, I am homeschooling my son like, this is not, you know, like, why am I sending him to school during the day, this is not okay. And so I stopped doing it. And we just started writing at the top of his paper, you know, I made it possible for him to sit at the table for, you know, however long homework was supposed to take, at that point, 30 minutes, and I would just write at the top of the paper, you know, this is what he got through in 30 minutes, and I would not help him at all, which was terrible for his morale, because he started failing everything. But it was better for the school because they then knew what was working and what wasn't, and they weren't getting that feedback before. But I think as parents, we don't know, like, Well, if the teachers sending it home, then it must be doable for all the other kids and therefore my kids should be able to do it. Right?

Penny Williams 5:59

You just should'd on yourself.

Sarah Wayland 6:02

I did. I do it all the time.

Penny Williams 6:06

I know, we live there for a long time. And sometimes we, you know, still fall back into this pattern. And so I'm always trying to be careful to let everybody know, listening that we're not perfect. We've learned these hard lessons over a really long time period. But we also still fall into those traps, because we're not perfect. And it's hard. It's just hard.

Sarah Wayland 6:26

And Penny back then I really was should'ing all over myself.

Penny Williams 6:29

Oh, yeah. Yeah, me too. Totally.

I spent like three years in a pit of shoulds trying to figure out what the heck to do. Right? I just thought, well, he should be able to do all this stuff. Right? I didn't know that. That was the wrong thing to be thinking or the wrong mindset entirely. Took me a while to learn that. Yeah, I'm sure you have the same experience. As you were talking, I wrote down ask yourself, How can I make it doable? I think that is an example of support. Yeah. Because part of support is figuring out durability, as we already talked about, but also accommodating, helping fill in some gaps, right, like you were helping your son learn some things that he hadn't learned in school, which had its own negative consequence. But that was still supporting him. Yeah. And so, you know, there's work for us as the adult to sort of come up with ways to support rather than enable. So enabling seems like the easy way. And it doesn't take as much effort supporting takes a lot more work and effort, a lot more thought, and intentionality.

Sarah Wayland 7:40

For sure. And, you know, I'm thinking maybe giving an example is a good idea here. And the one I was thinking of while you were talking it was chores. So cleaning the kitchen is an example that's currently on my mind, for some reason. Me too. And so in our house for many, many years, decades, I was the person who cleaned the kitchen. And I just did it because a it was much faster, be it was cleaned to my standards, which are apparently higher than anybody else's in the house, for sure. But it meant that there was a big load on me to do this. And when I didn't do it, things really fell apart. So we shifted to everybody has, you know, a part to play in that cleanup. So I wash hand dishes, my husband loads the dishwasher, my older son empties the dishwasher, and my younger son puts away the hand dishes. And those are all manageable tasks for them. Except that, for example, like when my kids are putting away the dishes, a lot of times they don't know where things go. So they'll come in and they'll say to me, you know, where do I put the whisk or something, you know, and so then I'll tell them where the whisk goes. But my older son got to the point where he was literally every single thing. He pulled out the dishwasher, you'd come in, at first. Yeah, he would ask me before he thought himself and I would say, Well, where are the other things that look like that? Like I would try to get him to think for himself, right? But he was perfectly happy to let me tell him where everything went, right. Yeah. And when I was doing that, I was enabling him. Initially, I thought I was helping him because you know, he genuinely didn't know where things went. But when it kept happening a year later, I thought, hmm. He's not learning. He's just letting me do this for him. And so that had become enabling. And so I needed to step back and get him to start thinking for himself. But I didn't say, I don't know you figure it out. Right. Right. Right. He would have shut down at that. But I did say, Well, where are the other things that are like that? And there are basically two options in our kitchen to draw orders that have that kind of thing in them. One of them is for less used things. And the other one is for more used things, utensils like that. And so you know, he puts them in one or the other, and I don't really care, I can find them. But I'm trying to get him to think about this idea of like, goes with like, he's 24, by the way. Yeah. Yes. The fact that I have to tell him that at age 24 kind of blows my mind. But it's because I spent so many years enabling him by not getting him involved in helping with the kitchen.

Penny Williams 10:32

Yeah, my daughter went off to college few years ago, and the first day, after we dropped her off, I got a text and it said, How do I do laundry? And I guess she had some new sheets or something she wanted to wash. And I thought, oh, my gosh, I failed this child. My first thought was, you've already done laundry. And you know how I second thought was, I have failed her if she is going to college and can't do laundry or figure it out? Right? Yeah. And what it really was, it wasn't necessarily a deficit in skill or independence. It was that I've always been the safety net, and sort of the comfortable zone for her. And so she just got in a pattern of always coming to me first asking me everything, right. And so my text back would be, you know, while Are there instructions, which I knew there was a big poster on the wall with instructions, right. And so leading her to figure it out, which she was perfectly capable of doing. And really already knew the hardest part was paying for it, which is different is a really cockamamie system. And she couldn't figure that out. And then it was funny, because I guess her last year, she was down doing laundry, and some girls came in and they were really struggling to figure out the machine. And she even with social anxiety and didn't know them, she walked up and she said, I really had a problem with that my first time to here's what you do. Oh, wow, yay. Oh, no, like she was feeling so good about that, that she was able to help somebody else. And it just takes like this confidence building. It's a big part I think of supporting our kids is making sure they feel, as you said confident and competent. When they don't, they aren't going to fall back to us, they're not necessarily going to put themselves at risk and try,

Sarah Wayland 12:37

You know, and the other piece of it is that when they put themselves at risk and try, they actually learn it better, right? Like I had this experience with my husband, where he plays this video game called Ingress, which is what Pokeyman go is based on. And he wanted me to join him and play with him. And so I was trying to learn how to play this video game. And there was a sort of high stakes moment. And he was trying to coach me through what I needed to do in this high stakes moment. And so he was just giving it to spoon feeding it to me step by step, do this now do this. Now do this. Now do this, now do this. And you know, we were successful, we blew up whatever we were trying to blow up. And it all worked great. But the next time we came to the same situation, I had no memory of what I had done. And he started coaching me again, I said, You know what, you just need to let me fail at this. So that I will learn for myself. And when I just made the effort to actually try to figure it out for myself. Once I did that I had learned it. And that was the end of that. It was such a powerful reminder to me that, you know, discovering it for yourself means you're going to remember it. But if somebody's just feeding it to you step by step. It's so much harder to memorize that.

Penny Williams 14:00

Yeah, yeah. And I'm a doer. I don't learn by somebody telling me. Yeah, I learned by going through the steps. I have to feel it. Right. And I think a lot of our kids are that way too. And that's just another way of supporting, you know, and I think what you're talking about is really like stepping back and asking ourselves, what do they need? And then questioning? Do they really need that much from me? Maybe. Because I think our inclination to is to over do it to help more because we want to protect our kids from frustration can completely blow up in our face. Yeah, yeah. too protective means they never learned how to do and they never learned how to survive hard things and stuff like that. So, you know, we have to be able to discern where that line is. And there's a fine line sometimes between supporting and enabling.

Sarah Wayland 14:58

For sure. And you know, I think your point about the short term benefit versus the long term benefit, I really want to highlight that for listeners, because, you know, telling my son where the stuff went in the kitchen was certainly faster. Right? The dishwasher got emptied much more quickly. But if I let him figure it out, it took longer. But over the long haul, it made him a much more efficient dishwasher. unloader. Right. Yeah. And I think that sometimes we lose sight of the long term goal, which is independence, you know, in favor of a short term goal, which is just getting all the things done, because there's so much to do.

Penny Williams 15:44

Yeah, there's so much to do. There's so little time there's so much chaos, we're just surviving. Especially starting out or when things are still really difficult, you haven't quite found your rhythm with your kid yet. You're just trying to survive, you can't really think about that long term, when you're in that mode, because you're not taking time to be intentional, right. And that's what really we're talking about here is you have to take time to be intentional, because you will default to enabling, I think almost everyone, every parent would default to enabling without thinking about it.

Sarah Wayland 16:18

Unless they have no patience with it. I was just thinking, like, like, my husband loses patience with the neediness a lot more quickly than I do. And so I used to get kind of upset with him, because I was like, You're not being nice to them. But now I'm looking back and I'm like, Oh, if I had just let him, you know, have them feel like allow them to feel a little nervous or a little unsure, then they would have gotten more independent more quickly. And so you know, it's such a, it's such a hard balancing act.

Penny Williams 16:52

It's so hard. And again, you're gonna make mistakes, we've all made mistakes, you will continue to make some mistakes, you'll just get less and less, right? The better you get at it, the fewer mistakes will come down the pike. You know, I keep thinking I keep coming back to your son and him asking you about where to put everything in the dishwasher. And my son, that's supposed to be his job. We're working on getting it done. And see here I am enabling him to not do it, because I just do it because it's easier. Because he's asleep during the day, which turned around or you know, and I've been doing it now for a long time. And the other day, I said, Hey, man, you know, it'd be so nice if you would empty a dishwasher for me right now. And usually, it's Oh, later later, and that's how I ended up doing it. And that day, he was like, okay, and he got off the computer and went right in there and did it and it was like, hallelujah. There is the capability of doing when I ask, which is a super big thing we're working on is not just procrastinating on every little thing, right? instinctually when his mouth opens, it's just later that's his automatic response, you know, but in emptying the dishwasher, he's the kid who will just put it anywhere to get it done. Uh, he doesn't care if it's in the right place. Yeah, your son is like, Oh, where do I put this? Where do I put this? No, Lucas, like, I'm just gonna put it on this cabinet. And then when I'm in there trying to find something I can't and sometimes I bring him in, I'm like, Okay, you're gonna have to find this thing. Where did you put it? Which he doesn't remember, but he's just doing it mindlessly. Right? Right. He's not doing it with intention. But, you know, our kids can be so wildly different from each other and have different sort of struggles. But, you know, part of that was me enabling by doing for him when I needed it to be done, right. I can't have a sink full of dishes for another day. It has to be done. And I asked him, he didn't come so I do it. And that's the wrong way to go about

Sarah Wayland 18:55

Right. That's the wrong fee gets rewarded for ignoring you, right.

Penny Williams 18:59

But I'll tell you, if I wait in this house. They will be like walking to the store for paper plates if they have to, like it will not get done like, Oh, I'm the only one that has the radar to like, get things done, like clean up and it just doesn't bother anybody else. And it's yeah, that's my own stuff.

Sarah Wayland 19:22

I just have to share this with you. So the last week and a half has completely been completely bonkers for me. completely bonkers. Like I didn't have time to do anything. And so one of the things I really didn't have time to do with anything in the kitchen like we were ordering out every night because I just I couldn't cook I couldn't do anything. And I told them at the beginning of the week, I said, I am going to have a really tough like, you know, last Wednesday I said this is gonna be incredibly difficult. I just have to get through next Friday. Once I'm through next Friday, it'll be okay. And then I didn't have space to eat even remind people to do things. And let me tell you, by the time Saturday rolled around our kitchen was utter chaos. It was ridiculous dishes everywhere. I mean, it was horrible. There were food on the floor, all sorts. I mean, it was just awful. And I was feeling really depressed, even though I should have felt good because I had gotten through all my big deadlines. And so I went in and I actually cleaned the kitchen, it took me four hours to clean that kitchen up cheese. And when it got to the end, my older son came in and he said, he said, Whoa, this looks great. And I said, thanks, I said, it would have been nice if other people had been helping during the week, because then it wouldn't have gotten so out of control, because by this time it was due in the morning or helping during your four hours. Well, that would have been nice, too. But I did get started at 10pm. So that was a little unreasonable. But anyway.

Penny Williams 20:57

So is it. Aren't they awake late? Maybe not raised unreasonable rounds here, young adults? These are the things we tell ourselves, right? These are the things we tell ourselves. Because we don't want to inconvenience others, right? We don't want to cause drama, we don't want to get in a battle. And we end up enabling in those situations. Yep. End up enabling. It's good he noticed.

Sarah Wayland 21:26

He did oh, my gosh, he did. And I said, you know, it would have been nice if somebody would have chipped away at this during the week. He was thinking about that. And he said, Well, it was getting to the point where I thought I was going to need to do something.

Penny Williams 21:42

Okay, so you need to take pictures, when the is a little bit messy. And post them with a note at the top on a big poster that says, If it looks like this, it's time for you to do something that is such a great idea. I love it. I love it. Like every cabinet door just needs to be a visual sign. I mean, the same happens here. I went out of town for a couple days a month or two ago, and came back and the kitchen was a disaster. And I said, you know it kind of sucks to come home to this to my husband. And he said, Well, it's exactly the way you left it. So it was my mess. I should but it wasn't my mess. It was everybody else's mess in there. Right? I just hadn't cleaned it up before I left. So he was proud of himself for not adding to the mess. Oh, wow. Not even thinking about helping, right? We enable our partners and spouses to your, by the way, people I've been doing it for 25 years. And it's a mistake, let me tell you.

Sarah Wayland 22:49

Well, you know, it's funny, I was talking to a friend of mine about this. And she said, Why didn't you tell them what they needed to do during the week? Like, why didn't you say to your son, hey, instead of putting your dishes next to the sink and in the sink, why don't you put them in the dishwasher? Right, like be specific with your requests. Now that is you know, people talk about the mental load that mothers often carry. And that's an example of that, where we carry that mental load. But you know, they literally, I mean, my son saying I was thinking it was getting to the point where I was gonna have to do he literally didn't see that it was a problem. Yeah, until it was so out of control. And that's a lesson for me. Right that I need to tell him before it's gonna take four hours to clean it up.

Penny Williams 23:37

Yeah, yeah, I think that's part of, you know, when we have to set expectations and set norms, like when our kids aren't wired necessarily to see the mess. Yeah, right. Then we have to say, okay, when this is happening, it's a problem. And you need to do this like setting those rules for them so that they learn those skills. And that's been something we've been working on with Luke because his room Holy moly. I mean, I've told him before, if somebody came in here, they would take you away from us, because he's not okay. But he doesn't see it and he can't help himself. He can't stop doing something to take a dish back to the kitchen. Right? And so we've really been working on it. And we started like, every time he comes out of the room, I'm like, just one thing. If you can just remember one thing like when I get up and I leave a room, I look around and see if there's something I should pick up and take with me. Right it's just habit for me and part of it I guess is my instinctual organization skills that he clearly doesn't have. So I'm trying to sort of teach him okay this is a rule when you leave a room you take something with you, you know and trying to go about it that way because the your rooms a mess, how can you stand it is not motivating. Does Isn't, to me, it's a mess to him, it's not to him, he's okay with it to a certain point. And then when he gets to that point, it doesn't feel doable for him to get out of it, and he's ashamed. And so he wallows in it instead of, you know, making something happen. And so we've really been trying to work hard on that. I'll tell you, I was having a conversation with Seth Perler, who's an executive functioning coach a few weeks ago, and I was talking to him about it. Because I said, you know, we I got this giant trash can and I put it in there, I have this giant plastic bucket for the dishes, like there are receptacles for everything right next to his desk where he said, you know, like arm's reach, how can that not work? And he said, Well, have you ever thought about just going in and pulling the trash bag out for him and putting the new one in? I'm like, no, because I would think that's enabling. He was like, No, you know, you're helping him, keep it maintained. You're supporting him when he's still not able to fully do it himself. That's a great exam. That was a lesson. That's great. I totally thought that was enabling. And I kept forcing myself not to do that kind of thing. Because I wanted him to figure out when it needed to be done, right. And Seth was like, Nope, you were shooting all over yourself. I was I was shooting. And so that was really interesting. So the other day I went in, and I was talking to him, and I said, Oh, I see your trash cans full. And I was about to say, I'll take that out for you. And he jumped up and picked it up real in our Oh, yes. So I hadn't even done it yet. For him, I just noticed. And here's something that came up a whole bunch in the school struggles Summit, and a lot of conversations you and I have had with a lot of people. And I know this is something you teach as well notice things out loud, helps to get our kids thinking about them and figuring out what they need to do. Yeah, so all I did was notice. And he, of course, wasn't in the middle of something where he wasn't going to stop. I mean, it was good timing, right. But immediately, it clicked for him. And he said, Oh, I'm gonna pull that out and take it out. And he did right away. Oh, so I went and got a bag for him. And I put the bag in while he was doing that, because I was trying to be supportive, right. And but you know, it's interesting how somebody else having a bird's eye view has a completely different take on it. Like immediately, Seth said, Well, why don't you just go in there and pull out the trash for him? Have you ever thought about doing that? Like, heck no, I have, because he's supposed to be doing it. Right. And it was a huge eye opener for me. And so sometimes, it's so helpful to have somebody else who can say, wait a minute, you know, you're not totally enabling if you are just doing a little bit, or if you're supporting in one way or another.

Sarah Wayland 27:45

Yeah. And you know, what I love about it is that when you went in to do that, all he actually needed was the cue, right? Because then he, you were right, he could do it himself. He just needed a reminder. So that's the other thing is like, you know, when you're supporting someone knowing how much support to give, right, yeah. And so I mean, that lesson, just, you know, like, you went in there thinking, okay, he's just not gonna think to empty the trash can. And it really is true. He just didn't think. But once you just went in there, and you know, thought, Okay, I'll take this, I will enable him by removing the trash bag. Right. But he actually wanted to do it. He just didn't think to do it. So he needed that reminder.

Penny Williams 28:33

Yeah, it's a big lesson in the fact that our kids wanting to do well, yeah, right. Yeah, he could have been lazy all this time. And if I had gone to do that, what would he do? He would let me right. If it was a matter of laziness, he would let me but I think the key here is because I've given lots of reminders. Yeah, those get met with a leader. And they get shrugged off. And I think, probably 80% of them, he doesn't even really hear me or process it. But when I noticed something that was different, he received and processed that differently. That's huge. Like, that's a huge lesson for me. Because that whole I noticed, and then waiting for them to talk really works. Like it's declarative language. That's amazing. It's totally amazing. I think this episode has been such an example of beautifully complex, because we have been telling lots of personal crazy stories that I hope are super relatable, and I think that they are but just kind of like going back and forth about what's enabling and supporting and Yeah, sort of having these all hands together about different things with each other. And it was a little messy, but it's also super helpful and a little bit beautiful. So I hope that everybody listening has really been able to take some good stuff away from it. I'm sure they have. And again, I think it's good to just reiterate that like supporting is helping our kids to have it doable to build skills to To foster independence and enabling is just doing for so I think you know, we're out of time already. We could talk for ages you and I probably forever somebody let us so well, it's pretty easy to fill up our time but we'll be back in another month with another behavior episode hear on the podcast. And for the show notes for this episode. Go to parentingADHDandautism.com/195 for episode 195 Thanks for chatting with me, Sarah.

Sarah Wayland 30:35

It was really fun as always.

Penny Williams 30:38

Yeah, we'll see everybody on the next episode. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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