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How do you know when to offer help?

How often in life do we come across a skill or task that feels difficult, maybe even impossible but we work hard, practice, experiment, and eventually, we reach the point where we are able to complete that task or master that skill? How amazing does that accomplishment feel once that cycle of learning is complete? I’m sure we could all agree that we hope that our children learn to persevere when things feel difficult and that they develop a love for this learning process. However, how many times have each of us stepped in to “help” our children before they are able to experience this cycle for themselves?


Deciding when to step in and offer help, and when to step back and let the child keep trying can sometimes feel confusing. Here are a few questions to stop and ask yourself next time you feel the urge to jump in and help.


  1. Is my child about to get hurt or damage something?

  2. Is my child upset or beginning to get very frustrated?

  3. Is there a time constraint?

  4. Have they asked for my help?


If you answered “no” to the questions above, chances are your “help” might actually be more of a hindrance. But what do we do when we answer “yes” to one of those questions?


1. Is my child about to get hurt or damage something?


If you answered yes, it sounds like your child needs you to intervene. Your reaction will depend on the severity and urgency of the situation.


2. Is my child upset or beginning to get very frustrated?


If you answered yes, this might be an opportunity to offer some connection and a bit of help. First, consider if your child might just need a moment of encouragement or connection with you. Phrases such as, “I see that you are getting upset, would you like a hug before you finish putting your shoe on?” or “I see you are getting frustrated. I’m going to come sit here with you while you put your shoe on”, allow you to offer support without physically intervening. If you feel that your child needs help, try offering the smallest bit of help at first. For example, if your child is struggling to zip up their coat, offer to hold the bottom steady as they thread the slider onto the teeth of the zipper, rather than doing the whole zipping process for them.



3. Is there a time constraint?


Sometimes we just need to move on to the next thing in our day and we have run out of time for our child to continue working to complete a task. When this is the case, we may need to step in and help. However, we can always do so in a respectful way by saying something such as, “I can see how hard you are working to zip up your coat. We have an appointment and need to get into the car now. I am going to help you zip up your coat but you can do it next time”. If this is happening often, consider beginning the task earlier next time in order to give your child more time to finish. You might also consider offering your child opportunities to practice this skill at a neutral time (when you don’t need to get out the door).



4. Have they asked for my help?


If you answered yes to this question, there are a few ways you can respond. Which one you choose depends on your child and the situation. Sometimes, stepping in and helping (to any degree) is a wonderful option. Other times, your child may just need a little encouragement or support. A simple, “Oh I can see you almost finished! I bet if you keep going, you’ll get it soon!” or “I’ll sit right here and watch, you keep trying” can go a long way in boosting your child’s confidence or stamina. Other times, they may just need the tiniest bit of help to get them over the hump. Start by offering the smallest intervention possible, and continue to add more support if needed.



How do you feel about help vs. hindering your child’s opportunity for independence? Have you tried any of the strategies mentioned in this post? Share your experiences with us!



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