When My Tween Is Struggling, Asking 'How Can I Help?' Works Like Magic

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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Usually, when one of my kids is frustrated with something, I can quickly come up with a solution for their problem. And, usually, when I suggest that solution, it is accepted as the useful wisdom it is, applied as per my instructions, and carried out successfully. Because I’m a wise, badass mama, chock-full of brilliant ideas to help my kids overcome any and all obstacles.

*scratching record sound*

And then my oldest turned 12, and things changed.

In the year since my son’s twelfth birthday, over the course of many frustrated moments and almost without my noticing, my motherly input has been gradually relegated to the same dark corner as my son’s old Transformers action figures and miniature jets.

*brushes cobwebs off shoulders*

Okay, okay, I’m being melodramatic. I know my kid values my opinion, sort of, because he occasionally still asks for it. I’d just better not offer it unsolicited. If I do, he either “already knows” what I’m talking about or I’m just plain wrong, he “just learned about this in school, Mom.” Which, to his credit, is usually true.

This is totally normal tween behavior, of course. My son is lurching toward independence—the last thing he wants when he’s frustrated is for me to jump in and rescue him.

The problem comes when he really can’t manage a problem on his own—when he needs help but doesn’t realize it or when he’s out of his depth and overwhelmed and angry. These are the toughest moments for us, and they happen most often when he’s stuck on a difficult homework problem. His math is so advanced at this point that it’s over my head, and we both know it.

So, he gets incredibly frustrated, literally to the point of pulling his hair, and I’m sure he’s doubly frustrated that he knows he’s on his own. Mom can’t help anymore. But when I offer solutions like “Take a deep breath, you can do this,” or “Have you texted any of your friends that are in the same class?” he becomes even more frustrated. He snaps at me that “No, he can’t do this” or “No, his friends can’t help, they’re just as stuck as he is,” and pounds his fist on the counter.

There have been times when he’s gotten so snippy with me that I lash out in return. I tell him to knock off his attitude or he’ll be grounded, or I tell him to go to his room if he wants to act like a grumpy jerk. I tell him he can be angry and frustrated, but I won’t tolerate him bringing everyone else down with him.

Even though I may be right to not tolerate lashing out behavior, in that moment when he is at his wits’ end, my commanding him to behave in any certain way is totally ineffective. He’s dealing with a rapidly developing brain that still has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This makes managing big emotions incredibly difficult. It’s literally not his fault that he can’t get his shit under control. He still has to learn, of course. But he can’t learn when he’s seeing red.

But that’s okay—I’ve found a workaround. Four simple words that have made all the difference in how my son and I interact with one another in difficult moments: “How can I help?”

I can’t take credit for this. My best friend used to be a clinical therapist and worked with lots of kids, and she suggested I try this. People, it’s a miracle.

How can I help?

This little question changes everything. It gives my son the autonomy to decide, first of all, whether he wants help or not—because sometimes he really doesn’t want a solution. And he’s old enough now that I need to respect when he needs space to figure something out on his own.

How can I help?

It also lets him decide, should he choose to accept help, what the help will look like. Maybe he wants a suggestion from me. Maybe he wants silence for a few minutes. Maybe he needs a snack or notebook paper or new batteries for his calculator.

How can I help?

He can simply say he doesn’t want any help right now. But asking the question at least lets him know that I am here if he needs me. I think we can all relate to that feeling of comfort we get just from knowing backup support is available if we need it. How can I help is a bridge to autonomy—I’m not swooping in to save my kid, but I am letting him know he’s not alone.

Last week when my son was struggling over his advanced algebra homework, frustrated to tears, I asked the question. I admit, I tried offering solutions at first, which only made him more frustrated. But then I remembered: How can I help?

And he did want help. You know what he wanted? A hug. Really. A freaking hug. I wrapped my arms around him and felt his shoulders relax. He went back to work and, though still frustrated, seemed to make some progress. I came back in 10 minutes and offered another hug, which he accepted. This time, since he was calmer, I reminded him to take deep breaths and offered to bring him a snack. He agreed to that. Another 10 minutes later and I offered another hug. He still accepted, but this time he was much, much calmer, and focused enough on his work that he only wanted a very quick hug before he returned his focus to the task.

Maybe next time when I ask this question, he’ll want my opinion. Maybe he’ll want to bounce some ideas off of me. Or maybe he’ll say he just wants to figure out how to manage his issue on his own.

It’s funny isn’t it, how, with tweens, letting go can sometimes be the thing that keeps them close? I know my son wants to be independent, and yet, I know he still needs me. Not all the time, but sometimes. And, I think, part of the journey toward independence is that my son must learn to know when he needs me and when he doesn’t. My job is to give him the space to decide.

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