June 4, 2023

A child's helplessness with basic tasks may indicate a need for something bigger, experts say.  (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Natalie Nelson for Yahoo)

A child’s helplessness with basic tasks may indicate a need for something bigger, experts say. (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Natalie Nelson for Yahoo)

“Mom, can you help me find a snack?” It’s a common refrain in this household, where we have four kids who are – seemingly – always hungry. Usually I don’t mind helping my 4-year-old and 9-year-old twins find something to eat, but my 11-year-old’s nightly request might win me over. My kid can code a computer game, explain the Panama Canal better than most historians, and walk to the corner store with his own ATM card, but sometimes he can’t buy his own yogurt and spoon. However, as I started thinking about it more deeply, I wondered if his helplessness wasn’t less about the task and more about connection. His long limbs don’t try to cuddle me as much anymore, and he’s moved beyond the toy trains we used to bond with. Although our big children don’t really need our help anymore, they still do sometimes want to It.

Why big kids ask for help they don’t need

“Asking for help is often a reliable way to engage a parent,” says Daniel Rinaldi, a therapist and founder of Mind Noise, a collective for artists and mental health professionals. “Your child may be very proud of what they can do and eager to show you off without bragging,” he adds. They may also want a parent to just be with them – to find comfort in being helped with something that is easy for them.

“Most teens and teens like having parents around while doing things they love,” adds Michelle Icard. She is an educator and the author of Fourteen calls at the age of fourteen. “Little kids do something like parallel play. They build or color next to each other but without cooperation. They enjoy the same kind of connection.” That may be why your high school student asks you to watch them play Minecraft (or even asks for your advice, even if you’re terrible at it).

How to help big kids seeking connection

Because the root of helplessness is often a need for connection, parents can sometimes be proactive in suggesting other ways to connect, says Dr. Ross Goodwin. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente, Goodwin says he plans a special outing or experience at least once a month to connect with his child, even if it takes some effort. He also tries to respond to their questions. “When my child asks me to do something with them, I never try to say no, or quickly agree on when to get in touch, even though I come home after a tiring day at work or am with my thoughts elsewhere.”

Icard says it’s important to realize that times of connection don’t have to be expensive or big events matter. “You don’t have to joke,” she says. “You can just sit side-by-side on your phone watching videos or listening to the same album while organizing or scribbling. Proximity is key, as is showing your child that you have no agenda other than spending time nearby This is why my kid wants me to stand next to him while he microwaves SpaghettiOs – even if he never says so.

When helplessness signals a bigger problem

Most teens and tweens seeking help with everyday tasks are simply looking for that bonding time. However, sometimes it is a sign of a deeper problem. Most middle and high school students have not yet fully developed their executive functioning skills. These skills help us stay organized, remember tasks, and make decisions. It’s not uncommon for a teen or tween to lose executive function later in the day, meaning they need help with seemingly simple decisions like what to eat or what clothes to pick out. However, for children with ADHD, autism and other neurodivergent diagnoses, a consistent inability to use their executive functions is quite common.

Goodwin says parents should consider whether asking for help points to one of these root causes. “While seeking help in areas where they are self-sufficient can be a normal part of their development, it can also be a sign of underlying mental health issues. For example, adolescents struggling with anxiety or depression may feel overwhelmed and seek reassurance or support from others.” He suggests contacting a pediatrician for appropriate mental health referrals.

Managing your own frustration

You’ve survived potty training and the toddler years, so it can be disheartening to discover that your big kid is still very needy at times. When I finally settle in for the evening and our younger children are asleep, I sometimes lose my temper when my oldest asks for help.

Rinaldi told me that’s normal. We want to meet the needs of our children while encouraging independence. Take a deep breath, stay calm, and remember that their question is not meant to trigger you. “Setting boundaries helps to structure and let your child know when you are available and when you are not. Finally, always practice self-care and find your own support as you grow as a parent,” she says.

Goodwin says that despite the valid reasons many big kids ask for help, it’s still OK to push for self-sufficiency in some areas. “While they allow for autonomy, they also provide structure and guidelines to help them navigate the challenges of adolescence,” he says. You recognize their need for attention and connection while also encouraging them to do some tasks themselves.

Rinaldi encourages parents to remember that this phase will pass and even encourages them to focus on what their child’s helplessness means. “One day they’re acting five years older than they are and the next day they’re throwing a tantrum,” she notes. You are still your little child and you are still there to help. It’s reassuring.”

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