When Do You Step In And Protect Your Child From Themself?

As parents, one of our jobs is to allow our children to make their own decisions, when they’re old enough. But what do you do when you realize you need to step in and make decisions for them? How do you know when it’s time to protect them from themselves?

I remember hearing an old preacher, a long time ago, talk about granting our kids responsibility when they grew older. “We must arrive to the place in our parenting, and when our children are old enough, where we allow them to stand on their own two feet,” he said, through a crackly voice. 

I agreed with him. This was long before I had any kids, or was even married. In fact, I may have even been a college student. But that principle stayed with me well into my years as a parent. I knew that when my children were old enough, specifically in their teenage years, we would begin to grant them the freedom to make their own decisions, and take responsibility for things that mattered to them.

After all, that’s what you do when you’re a parent who wants to see their child thrive, right? You give them little bits of freedom here and there, along the way, slowly increasing this as they grow older. Why? Well, two reasons- 1) You’re preparing them for adulthood and, 2) You get to a point when your own exhaustion kicks in and you just want them to decide what they want to do.

But then a question pops into my mind as it relates to children who’ve come from past trauma. Children who may present themselves as being capable of making their own decisions, even displaying some skill-set in making wise choices, but at the end of the day….just can’t. This is not a criticism, this is an observation. What about the child who you grant the freedom to make his or her own choices, but because of limitations from a brain that’s been altered by trauma, suddenly begins to flounder? What do you do as a parent? Do you stand by and watch this play out? Or do you decide it’s time to step in and make the wise choice for them? 

I’ve been pondering this for a few months now. Over the past decade, we’ve raised children who wanted freedom, even going as far as to tell us they can do things on their own, and they didn’t need us to step in. And, most of the time, we graciously stepped to the side to let them choose everything from highly advanced classes in school (because they thought they could do the work), to joining a sport they weren’t good at, to participating in an extra-curricular activity that was way over their head. And on several occasions, we watched them flounder. 

It’s like taking your child to a pool, and having them tell you they can swim in the deep end, so you let them do it (I know, I know….you wouldn’t just take their word for it…but just go with me on this analogy for a minute!). For a moment they seem to be doing good. They sorta kinda tread water, but that defaults to doggie paddling. They are keeping their head above water, but barely. Pretty soon though, they grow tired. First their chin dips a little below the surface. After a while, their entire face dips under and back up. They go from doggie paddling to splashing water uncontrollably. Now they’re really starting to go under. As a good parent, you jump up, reach out to them, and tell them to take your hand because you’re pulling them to the side. But instead of taking your hand, they respond with, “I’m okay, I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing!” You recoil. Because you’re certain they’re not okay, even though they keep telling you they are. In your knowledge, and wisdom as an adult, you know….all signs point to drowning. 

What would you do in that instance? Any one of you reading this would tell me that, regardless of the fact that your child is telling you they’re okay, and they don’t need your help, that you would jump in and save them immediately. You would be right to do so. Because sometimes we need to respond out of wisdom, and longer-life-lived status, then simply a parent who has decided to give their child freedom. 

Now consider our kiddos. I hate that this is true, but their past trauma has altered their brains in such a way that it often renders them incapable of doing some things. Not in every circumstance, but many. I’m not crushing dreams right now, and I totally believe that if they put their minds to something, they can make their biggest dreams come true. I also believe that our children are, and will continue to be, big success stories. But, sometimes we have to step in when it’s clear they are over their heads. Sometimes we need to protect them from them! This is our reality. And this is theirs, even if they can’t see it. 

They will feel like bigger failures if we stand by and watch them drown doing something they’re trying to do, than if we reach in and pull them out like a parent sometimes has to do. 

The last thing you and I want to see happen is for our children to fail and feel crushed. 

So this brings me back to this question: When do we step in and protect our children from themselves when it’s clear they’re in over their heads? When do we start making decisions for them, when we’re certain they have lost their way? It’s tricky. It’s messy. And it shouldn’t be done lightly if you have to do it. I’ll make this simple: At the end of the day, I believe when you, through your wisdom, can clearly see their heads going under water, it’s time to pull them from the deep end.  

Question: Are you in this place with your child? What have you learned? What are you struggling with? Share your response in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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