When your teen needs help, do they actually ask for help? Or do they pretend to have all the answers when they're actually feeling frustrated and helpless? As parents, it's natural for us to jump in and solve our kid's problems. We've been doing it all their lives. But at some point, we have to teach them to help themselves. How do we shift from “fix it” mode to “support” mode? Here are 5 tips to navigate what tend to be emotionally charged moments:
1. Don't offer solutions.
Use a coach-approach. Ask questions instead of offering solutions. This makes your teen part of the problem-solving process. For example, if your teen is stuck on a homework project you might ask: “Tell me what you know up to the point where you're feeling stuck?” “Who do you know who might understand this?” "Have you ever done this or something similar before?" Then, "What did you do last time?" "Suppose you had all the information you needed, what would the next step/s be?" "Let's imagine you're really excited about this. What would you do?" "From where you are now, what would be a next step that you could feel good about?" "What do you need to do before you do anything else?" "What one small step could you take to move forward?"
2. Give your teen conversation starters so they know how to ask for help.
Here are some ways to ask for help without using the word “help”:
- “I'm trying to…but I'm confused.”
- “This is what I've got so far.”
- “What do you think of this?”
- “Am I on the right track?”
- "I'm sorry, I think I misheard you..."
- "I'm a bit unclear with that explanation..."
- "I think I might have missed something while I was taking notes here..."
3. Teach that those with authority are real people.
Teens can be intimidated by authority figures. Ever hear, “My teacher doesn't like me.” Or “My teacher wants me to fail.” Ask your teen what she knows about a teacher, coach, or other professional. Many teachers and coaches share personal tidbits. Focus on this person as a real person, someone who: has kids of their own, loves dogs, runs marathons, just got married, etc. Questions to ask your teen: “Has your teacher encouraged you to come chat when you're stuck?” Think about it. Your teacher doesn't want to look bad, and how well their students perform tells others they are really a good teacher. So do you think it's really true that they wants you to fail?”
4. Reframe “Help.”
Your teen thinks they should be able to do everything themselves, or that by admitting they need help, they are weak. Gently remind your teen that perfect doesn't exist. It is unrealistic. It sets them up to fail. Getting support sets them up to succeed. Help them see asking for help as a strength. It takes courage to admit you don't know. In order to seek help, you need to be strong enough to accept that you aren't perfect. No one person is good at everything. If you expect to get straight A's in all your subjects, it's probably unrealistic. It's possible, but you will struggle in some subjects more than others. Help your teen identify their strengths and accept being a mere mortal. And here's the hardest part: to do this well, you will have to model it for them, which means accepting your own imperfections, and learning to ask for – and accept – help when YOU need it!
5. Take the focus off of your teen.
Everyone needs support. Your teen may believe they are the only person who needs help, or they've been helped their entire life and they just want to do it on their own. Share how you get help and identify where successful people get help. For example, a general contractor needs framers, painters, accountants, cabinet-makers and lots of other skilled people to build houses. They all support the contractor and his business. Does that make the contractor weak? No, it makes him smart and successful. Ask your teen to name one person she admires. Ask her who supports this person and how. This will help “normalize” help for your teen. Help is a profound gift, and asking for help is a sign of strength. Part of being a whole human being, a mature human being, really showing up like a grown-up—in relationships, in school, at work-- is being able to help ourselves by tapping into others.