Want your son to improve his executive functioning? Start with looking at your mindset.

Want your son to improve his executive functioning and become more independent this school year? A good place to start is with looking at your mindset and questioning if it is helping your child develop skills or enabling his over-dependence.
I often hear from parents that they would like their child to improve their executive functioning and develop greater independence, yet they have developed a long history of enabling their child’s over-dependence on them which has inevitably inhibited their child’s executive function skill development.
In order to develop greater independence, it’s essential for parents to look at their own mindset (which has often developed unconsciously) that may inhibit their child’s executive function skill development and ability to be independent.
The most common mindsets I find that exhibit executive function skill development include the following:
I can’t let him experience natural consequences.”
Parents who are fearful of their child experiencing natural consequences often do so because they don’t want their child to experience any type of failure. I heard a great phrase once regarding this topic, “let them experience the dignity of failure”.

If your mindset is that of protecting your child from failure, I encourage you to think about how they will learn to self-monitor themselves, develop cognitive flexibility and handle setbacks. Everyone needs to experience failure to grow. Protecting kids from failure may make a parent feel less anxious but it does nothing to help a child learn from natural consequences.   As an example, if a child is constantly late to school because they do not wake up on their own and may receive a detention because of their lateness, I encourage parents to allow them to receive the detention, then engage in collaborative problem solving with them. This allows them to experience a consequence, followed by a problem-solving intervention.
“Grades are most important, I’ll do everything for him to make sure his focus is on academic performance.” Each school year, I meet a new group of young adults, typically between 19-20 years old who went off to college and typically did not make it through their first semester or finished the semester with failing grades. The reason for this is not because they could not handle the academic demands, rather they lacked the executive functioning, self-advocacy and independent problem-solving skills to manage their academic career independently. Parents who do not place demands on their child aside from academic performance unintentionally do a tremendous disservice to their child because they deny them the opportunity to develop the skills they will need to manage their life independently. While many kids figure out how to do this because they are motivated to be independent, many with ADHD and related challenges do not because typically these independent skills are non-preferred tasks.
When I see parents with this mindset I share with them my motto “Getting into a good college doesn’t mean much if you can’t stay there because you lack the skills to be manage your life independently”. In these cases, I emphasize to parents that research has shown that the ability to form social relationships, manage emotions and solve problems independently are better indicators of future success than academics
“I need to feel needed, so I’ll do everything for him.” This mindset is rarely verbalized, rather it is shown through actions. Some parents of kids with challenges find a sense of purpose in their child’s over-dependence.   If you do things for your child because of your need to feel needed I encourage you to think about how you are helping your child if you are enabling their over-dependence on you. I find this mindset to be extremely common among mothers of children diagnosed with Asperger’s or higher-verbal ASD.
“I feel guilty that he struggles and blame myself so I’ll do things for him out of guilt.”  If you read any Facebook group for parents of kids with ADHD or related challenges, you’ll see a tremendous amount of “Mom Guilt”. In my experience, the more guilt a parent experiences around their child’s challenges the more their guilt will inhibit their ability to help their child.  Conflicting opinions from spouses, family members, strangers on Facebook, etc.  certainly do not help to develop clarity or feel supported here.  Because of the onslaught of conflicting opinions many parents receive my advice here is to consider the long-term goal-employment and independence to the best of one’s ability.  If you do things for your child out of your own guilt you may be hindering his ability to be independent and employable to the best of his ability.  Unfortunately, I have seen this scenario too many times, particularly with young adults who are diagnosed with anxiety as well as Asperger’s/higher-verbal autism.
Examining your mindset as it relates to helping your child develop their independence.  If you recognize a pattern of enabling dependence I encourage you not to judge yourself, rather think about how you can shift your mindset from one of enabling to empowering.  From there, I encourage you to think about 1 skill you would like to help your child learn how to do independently in the next month.  Think about how you will create the scaffolding to help teach this skill independently and move your child towards greater independence. 
Here is a framework for teaching independent skills:

  1. You watch me do it
  2. We do it together
  3. I watch you do it (and only give instruction if necessary)
  4. You do it independently (without my supervision)

Please visit the Ride the Wave Counseling website to learn how we can help you help your son improve his executive functioning and age-expected independence and help you to empower him so he can be his best.
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, CAS is the Director of Ride the Wave Counseling in Linwood, NJ & Bryn Mawr, PA.