When your adult children come to you with challenges, big and small, do you immediately leap into action like Super Mom, taking charge, and quickly coming up with a solution? Maybe even handling the problem yourself? Need a résumé, an apartment, a good suit, a way to get back from the airport at 3 a.m? Not to worry, Mom the Fixer will come to the rescue. Really, from decades of experiences, doesn’t “Mother Know Best” how to handle life’s challenges, efficiently and economically?
But being the fixer can keep your adult children from truly taking responsibility for themselves. How do we step away and let them be their own fixers? A recent blog post, “Three Little Words That Can Change Your Life Forever,” caught our attention. The words are whole, capable, and resourceful. It seemed to us that applying those words to our relationship with adult children could be extremely useful for helping us step out of that Fixer role.
The author of the article, Beth Buelow, is the founder and CEO of The Introvert Entrepreneur, a company that provides coaching and other services. We spoke to Ms. Buelow, a professional coach and business consultant, on the phone this week from her office in Puget Sound, Washington.
Q. You wrote that the basic concept is “to view and hold others as whole, capable, and resourceful” and that putting that into practice can be a “game changer.” How?
A. If I choose to hold someone else as whole, capable, and resourceful, I see her not as a person to rescue, but a person to respect. Not broken, but healthy. Not helpless, but self-reliant. Not clueless, but creative.
Q. How does that work with parents and adult children?
A. It shifts the responsibility from you to the child, and the relationship becomes peer to peer rather than parent to child.
Q. Why do you think parents so often take on the role of fixer?
A. We equate being needed with being loved. When they need me they love me. But is that really love? When you jump in and rescue them you are doing it out of fear that they won’t call or that they won’t let me know what’s going on in their lives or that they won’t love you.
Q. Suppose as a parent you believe that yours is the most practical solution to a problem?
A. Try brainstorming different ideas with your child and then offer your solution, not as the only one but as one of several possibilities, saying “Here’s something to think about.” You may want to scream that it’s the obvious solution if they don’t accept it as such. But you must detach yourself from it. If they use it great; if not that’s fine too. Let the child decide what she needs.
Q. That sounds easier said then done. How do you practice that role?
A. It’s called compassionate detachment. The first step is to notice when you are playing the role of the fixer. Then start practicing when stakes are really low. Your adult child says, “I don’t know what I am having dinner for tonight.” You can respond by asking “What are you in the mood for?” If they can’t figure it out, they won’t starve to death!
Recognize too that it takes time to build this muscle. Practice solving the problem with, rather than for, the other person
Q. There are six steps to this process. What’s the second step?
A. Rather than brace yourself to take action, relax and listen without judgment or analysis. Physically relax and open up and release any compulsion to literally to jump. Also it’s important to try to listen. The hardest thing is to listen.
Q. You explain that the goal of this process is to recognize your adult child as an intelligent, creative human being, capable of handling the situation, and equally important, getting the child to recognize herself in that way. How does that happen?
A. If we constantly rescue them they come to believe the story that they can’t handle problems themselves. By not rescuing them, your belief in them inspires belief in themselves. The message we want to give our children is that “You can handle this.”
Because that’s the bottom line: when we treat others with dignity and respect, they often rise to the occasion, whether they believe in their own capacity or not.