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Help Your Overly Dependent Child Be More Independent

Parents can help their overly dependent children become independent children and adjust to different situations and routines with ease. Here's how.

A mother writes, We are past the halfway point in the school year, yet my fourth-grade daughter still has difficulty separating from me in the mornings, dealing with new situations, and calming herself down after an upset. Sometimes she needs to leave her classroom just to settle down. This creates all sorts of social problems for her as well. Any suggestions?

Some Overly Dependent Children Simply Aren't Prepared to be Independent

It is not uncommon for young children, especially with the start of the school year, to have some trouble adjusting to the new routine. Normally, tears and protests subside within a few weeks, as the child plants herself comfortably within a gradually familiar environment. Her sense of calm and independence grows as she reacquaints herself with friends and finds pride and interest in the expanding world of school.

Overly dependent children who aren't emotionally prepared for this independent growth show visible signs. They may cling to secure "anchors," such as a parent, friend, or teacher, and have great difficulty adjusting to a substitute or the unpleasantness of circumstances at school. Sometimes it seems that they experience each new day as an assault on their need for sameness as if their emotional equilibrium is calibrated to only one environmental blend.

Children who fit this profile may be seen as needy, unpredictable, and demanding. Such traits do not endear them to their peer group.

Helping Overly Dependent Kids Become Independent Kids

While there are many paths that lead children to this dependent state, here are some coaching strategies:

Recognize what you may be doing to perpetuate the cycle. Often times, this problem is related to the child's over-dependence upon caregivers to perform the functions of regulating emotional arousal. Instead of adapting to new situations and strong feeling states by self-monitoring and self-soothing, children have retreated to the willing arms of parents or parent surrogates. Continued reinforcement of this pattern robs the child of important opportunities to progress from emotional dependency to self-sufficiency. Consider whether your child's dependency may be unconsciously serving some needs of your own.

Dependency is just as enslaving for the child. Don't make the mistake of assuming that your child enjoys her dependency problems. While some of her behavior may appear overly dramatic or manipulative, it all springs from the same source. As children age, development dictates that they take pleasure in their new privileges and independence. If your child is not following this pattern, speak with her about what it is like for her to see her peers managing their lives so differently and how trapped she feels by her clinginess. Assume that she is torn between the wish for and fear of separation and growth.

Once you have acknowledged her dilemma, appeal to her wish for growth. Explain to her that she can be taught the skills of self-monitoring and self-soothing but it works best for her to take an active part in the plan. Like learning to ride a bike without training wheels, at first it can seem scary and wobbly but she will gradually feel steadier and more balanced. Ask her to pick one place where she would like to start "riding on her own," such as making phone calls, accepting invitations for sleepovers, or handling her least favorite part of the school day with poise and confidence.

Demonstrate certainty that she can learn how to strengthen her "calm mind" and relax her body. Explain that her thoughts send instructions about how she should feel and react to change and discomfort. If she sends negative or extreme messages, such as "I can't stand this!" her feelings and tension make it seem like she can't manage on her own. Suggest calming and empowering messages she can rehearse in her mind, such as "Change is not so bad" and "I can tolerate this for now." Follow these up with exercises to promote bodily relaxation, such as soothing visual imagery and alternating between tensing and releasing muscle groups.

The ultimate goal is for the child to learn the skills of self-soothing so that she can cope with what is reasonably expected at her age. Self-soothing refers to the child's capacity to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of unwanted change, unexpected disappointment, and other minor adversities. Children lacking in these skills benefit from parents who take a proactive role in encouraging independence and supplying informed guidance to support their progress.

APA Reference
Richfield, S. (2019, August 5). Help Your Overly Dependent Child Be More Independent, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/the-parent-coach/help-your-overly-dependent-child-be-more-independent

Last Updated: August 5, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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