Experts explain why sometimes it’s the only way they know how to ask parents for attention.
Tue, 16 May 2023 at 2:21 pm BST
“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. I don’t usually mind helping my 4-year-old and 9-year-old twins find something to eat, but the nightly request from my 11-year-old has the ability to put me over the edge. My child can code a computer game, explain the Panama Canal better than most historians and walk to the corner store with his own debit card, but he cannot procure his own yogurt and spoon at times. As I began to think about it more deeply, though, I wondered if his helplessness was less about the task and more about connection. His long limbs don’t really seek to snuggle with me too often anymore, and he’s moved past the toy trains that we used to bond over. While our big kids don’t actually need our help anymore, they still sometimes want it.
Why big kids ask for help they don’t need
“Asking for help is often a reliable way to get a parent to engage, says Daniel Rinaldi, a therapist and founder of Mind Noise, a collective for artists and mental health professionals. “Your child might be very proud of what they can do and eager to show you without bragging,” he adds. They might also want a parent to just be with them — finding comfort in being helped with something that is easy for them.
“Most tweens and teens like having parents nearby while they do things they love,” adds Michelle Icard. She’s an educator and the author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen. “Little kids do something called parallel play. They build or color next to each other but without collaboration. They enjoy the same kind of connection.” That might be why your middle-schooler asks you to watch them play Minecraft (or even asks for your advice, even though you’re terrible at it).
How to help big kids seeking connection
Since the root cause of the helplessness is often a need for connection, parents can sometimes be proactive in providing other ways to connect, says Dr. Ross Goodwin. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Goodwin says he plans a special outing or experience to connect with his kid at least once a month, even if it takes a bit of effort. He also tries to be responsive to their asks. “If my child asks me to do something with them, I try to never say no, or we agree on a definite time soon when we will connect, even if I’m coming home after a tiring day at work or my mind is elsewhere.”
Icard says it’s important to realize times of connection don’t need to be costly or major events to matter. “You don’t need to banter,” she says. “You can just be side by side on your phones watching videos, or listening to the same album while you organize or doodle. Proximity is key, as is showing your child that you have no agenda but to spend time close by.” This is why my kid wants me to stand next to him as he microwaves SpaghettiOs — even if he doesn’t ever say so.
When helplessness signals a bigger issue
Most teens and tweens seeking help with mundane tasks are just looking for that bonding time. Sometimes, though, it’s a sign of a deeper issue. Most middle and high schoolers have not fully developed their executive functioning skills. These skills are what help us stay organized, remember tasks and make decisions. It is not unusual for any teen or tween to lack executive functioning later in the day, meaning they need help with seemingly simple decisions like what to eat or what clothes to pick out. However, for kids with ADHD, autism and other neurodivergent diagnoses, consistent inability to use their executive functioning skills is very common.
Goodwin says parents should consider if asking for help hints at one of these underlying causes. “While seeking help in areas where they are self-sufficient may be a normal part of development, it can also be a sign of underlying mental health struggles. Adolescents struggling with anxiety or depression, for example, 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 discouraging to find your big kid is still very needy at times. When I’ve finally settled for the evening and our younger kids are asleep, I sometimes lose my patience when my oldest asks for help.
Rinaldi told me that’s normal. We want to meet our kids’ needs while also encouraging independence. Take a breath, remain calm and remember their ask is not meant to trigger you. “Setting boundaries will help to provide structure and let your child know when you are and are not available. Lastly, always practice self-care and seek your own support when growing as a parent,” she says.
Goodwin says that, even recognizing the valid reasons many big kids ask for help, it is still OK to push for self-sufficiency in some areas. “While allowing autonomy, also provide structure and guidelines to help them navigate the challenges of adolescence,” he says. You can recognize their need for attention and connection while also encouraging them to manage some tasks themselves.
Rinaldi encourages parents to remember that this stage will pass and even encourages them to focus on what their child’s helplessness means. “One day they act five years older than they are and the next they have a tantrum,” she notes. “Asking for help with stuff they already know how to do reminds them that despite all the changes that come with growing up, they’re still your little kid and you’re still there to help. It’s comforting.”