When Helping isn't Helping

This was originally posted at http://www.barnmaven.com/2010/10/when-helping-isnt-helping.html on October 25, 2010.

I think its a given that dysfunctional relationships breed dysfunction.  Personality and past have a lot to do with the level of bad juju you start a relationship with, but the dynamics of the relationship develop over time and create lasting habits.

I wasn't always codependent.  There were years and relationships in my life where I didn't take responsibility for another human being's happiness or discontent, success or failure.  It occurs to me those relationships might not have been the healthiest or best, and so they ended eventually.  I can only remember one relationship in my past, though, where the mutual level of dysfunction matched the last 10 years of my life.  In my memory it seems to have been a very long term relationship, but in reality it was probably not that long at all, a few months or a year.  The habits I picked up from it have caused a lot of hurt to me and to other people, though.  It was when I met someone who was also codependent that those issues blew up into something worse than unmanageable.

(Interesting side note, I discovered last week that the man I dated for a short while back in the 1980's is still the #1 most wanted deadbeat parent in the state of New Jersey.  He owes over $54,000 in child support.  How awful is THAT?  Hey, at least I can say "I dated a guy who was Number One!")

One of the most harmful things I have done in my relationships is to continually try to "help" people.  In reality, what I did was enable people to be doing things that really weren't healthy or good for them.  I tried to fix things for them instead of letting them fix things themselves, thereby teaching them to be helpless.  I remember offering to be the stand-in for my ex and his ex because dealing with her was so upsetting to him.  It seemed like the right thing to do at the time -- I thought it would help him be less angry and upset, thereby killing two birds with one stone.  I would help him and myself at the same time.  How silly it was of me to presume to make decisions for him regarding his son, or to insert myself into a relationship that I had no business being part of.  I wasn't my stepson's parent, and I didn't have the right to be his father's voice in dealings with his mother.  I also hurt my ex by not allowing him to work through his issues in that relationship on his own; by helping him avoid the problem, I helped prolong and worsen it.  In short, I messed up, royally.

As I continue to recover I am trying to learn how to hear other people's problems without trying to fix them.  At first it seems cruel to let someone suffer, but over time it begins to feel more natural.  I can let somebody vent, let them know I hear how they are feeling, have empathy for what they are going through, but recognize that they are capable of managing their own lives and problems.  Its something I'm also trying to learn to do as a parent.

There are times when our children need something from us, something we ought to give them, and that is when it is helpful to them for us to provide assistance.   When they are babies, they need everything from us - without loving hands to feed, clothe, bathe and transport them, they would wither and die.  As they grow older, though, they need to learn how to do things for themselves.  It starts with simple things and over time encompasses the most complex decisions about who they are, what they believe, how they should handle their own affairs.

Today I got a call from my son's school.  He was in the nurse's office, crying inconsolably.  His sensory issues had kicked in and he couldn't stand the feel of his feet or his socks.  Rather than just take them off, he was having a downright fit about them.  He does this at home a lot.  Sometimes its the shoes or socks, other times its his pants or his shirt or his hair.   He'll be sitting doing something, and suddenly he'll begin shrieking and tearing at whatever item is causing the offense.  Its hard to know how to respond to these outbursts.  There's a big part of me that wants to do anything, anything at all to help him feel better.  Over time, though, I've seen that there's not a whole lot I CAN do.  If I try to help him with something he'll scream at me.  If I get upset because he's upset, I simply escalate him further.

I think the school nurse was really taken aback when I suggested to her that she simply leave him alone.  I can hear the thoughts spinning now, "Is she really that cold-hearted?  How could she suggest I ignore her son's crying?  How mean!"  The truth is, leaving him alone is the best thing I can do for him.  Because his issues aren't caused by the actual item of clothing in question but instead by his neurological response to stress and the smallest discomfort, I'm not helping him by sitting and cuddling him while he screams or even asking him what I can do for him, or trying to get him different socks or different pants.  What he needs is to be left alone, without any pressure from me, so that he can calm down and start to feel better.

I discovered this by accident on a day when I was busy getting ready for work.  He started flipping out about his hair, and I was so late that I couldn't do anything for him.  Didn't have time.  And so I just said as calmly and lovingly as I could, "I can't help you now.  You'll have to figure this out for yourself."  And eventually, he did.  My mother has seen the same thing happen at her house.  He'll start yanking on his shirt and screaming and she'll see if he's okay, and then say "Okay, that's enough,"  and walk away.  Sometimes it takes him longer than others, but eventually, he gets to feeling better and less anxious, and he pulls himself together.  The more we let him do this on his own, the better he gets at it.  I'm not going to lie and say that there are days when I'm already stressed out about other things that he goes off on a shriek bender that I don't feel like I'm losing my mind right along with my will to live, that there aren't days when I snap at him to please quit it right now fortheloveofgod!  Of course there are.   But he's getting better at it and so am I.  And so I learn, that sometimes the best way of helping someone is to not help them at all.  My son, he teaches me that.



Mary a/k/a BarnMaven blogs at http://www.barnmaven.com about single parenting, living with ADHD, too many animals to count and dealing with ADHD/Bipolar kids.


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