This is part two of a three-part series on learned helplessness You can read part one here and read part three here.

Learned Helplessness Begins at Home

The more we do for our children, the less they do for themselves. The less they do for themselves, the more helpless they seem.

As parents, when we over-function for our children—typically by doing something for them that they are capable of doing themselves—we can be enabling learned helplessness to set in. Unsurprisingly, learned helplessness often starts in the home, where there are many opportunities for it to develop (be it through chores, homework, or just everyday routines). Michelle Smith Lank, owner of Kids World Learning Center in Georgia, issues a wake-up call about the vicious cycle of learned helplessness to caregivers by reminding us, “Yes, we want our children to be successful and we may be afraid that they might fail. We feel our job as a parent is to ensure that they don’t fail; however, we are undermining our children’s progress through learned helplessness. It becomes a cycle. The more we do for our children, the less they do for themselves. The less they do for themselves, the more helpless they seem. The more helpless they feel, our response is to do more. Instead of learning life skills our children are learning helplessness.”

When we get stuck in the role of doing too much for our kids, we might find it hard to stop. We feel needed when they rely on us. The problem arises when they come to expect us to do these things for them.

Below are some common examples of learned helplessness from empoweringparents.com. Do any of these sound familiar? 

Your toddler knows how to tie her shoes, but you tie them for her anyway because it’s faster.

  • You run back to school when your forgetful 13–year–old son forgets his homework again.
  • Your teen leaves his dirty clothes all over the house. Instead of getting into another argument about it, you do it for him. It’s easier that way.
  • Your daughter with ADHD is having problems completing her science project. She can’t seem to focus and complains that it’s boring and too difficult. After she goes to sleep, you finish it for her. After all, you don’t want her to fail.

Often we do these things to manage our anxieties about our kids’ capabilities and wellbeing. We’re scared they might fail, so we do what we can to ensure that they don’t. In the process, we unwittingly undermine their progress. Doing too much for—and essentially functioning for—our kids sets them up for failure rather than success.

How to Overcome Learned Helplessness in Your Home

It is imperative to recognize patterns of behavior that we (as adults) are doing to contribute to the problem of learned helplessness. If you rush to finish a task for your child just to speed things up, prevent an argument, or make things easier, take a minute to step back and acknowledge this is part of the problem. The best way to overcome learned helplessness is to encourage children to become motivated and independent and let them do a little productive struggling. Help guide them in the right direction while giving them the space to do the things needed to complete their tasks. Offer them support, comfort, and an ear to listen when they struggle, but do not do their tasks for them.

Cognitive behavior techniques supporting learned optimism have been found to combat learned helplessness.

If your child is exhibiting behavior that suggests a problem with learned helplessness, you can take action to help them before their learned behavior develops into worse problems with anxiety or depression. Cognitive behavior techniques supporting learned optimism have been found to combat learned helplessness. According to verywellmind.com, mental health professional believe that by using these techniques, we can teach children to dispute their own negative thoughts and promote their problem-solving and social skills. They also give us several helpful parent “scripts” to help us reinforce learned optimism in our kids:

  • “It seems like you feel discouraged by doing poorly on your test after all the studying.”
  • “It can feel overwhelming when you are a good friend to others and they don’t return the favor back to you.”
  • “You feel down and lonely by things not working out for you. How can we figure this out together?”
  • “I don’t know. I would have to think about that. What do you think would be helpful?”
  • “Tell me more about what you are struggling with?”
  • “Where are you with this problem?”
  • “What led up to this problem?”
  • “What do you think would be a good solution?”
  • “Can you name two other possible solutions?”

Parents should also take steps to avoid over-functioning for their kids and prevent learned helplessness from gaining a foothold—or stop it in its tracks. Empoweringparents.com provides guidance on how to stop doing too much for your child by slowly incorporating changes into your routine: 

  • Do just one thing differently at first.
  • Play a different role than the typical one you’ve played.
  • Be responsible, but don’t rescue.
  • When your child comes to you with a problem, be a listener. Don’t jump in and fix things.
  • Take on the role of coach and teacher, not the doer.

Conclusion

Empowering our children enables them to build the life skills they need to problem solve and build their confidence. As parents, it’s our job to encourage them along this path, and help them to continue trying newer and harder things. Failure is an essential part of the learning process, and not something parents should attempt to avoid or compensate for. When failure occurs, focus on developing learned optimism to help offset the sting of failing and reduce anxiety and depression.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website

This is part one of our series on learned helplessness. You can read part two here and part three here.

Finding the right balance between helping your child and hindering their growth is a fine line that we always seem to be balancing as caregivers and educators. However, one thing we often don’t consider is that if we do too much for them we could be robbing them of learning necessary life or executive function skills. Oftentimes, if we allow them to struggle we feel guilt, frustration or even impatience. But if we over-function for our children, this prevents them from getting the essential practice that it takes to develop control over their outcomes and in their lives. Over time this can lead to what psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. You can read  all about learned helplessness (and strategies to overcome it at home and at school) in this three-part blog series!

Learned helplessness ‘exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events’ (Seligman, 1975).

Learned Helplessness Defined

In Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, Martin Seligman described learned helplessness as something that “exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events”

At home when you ask your child to do something, is their first response or attitude, “I can’t do it”? Do you find yourself cleaning up after them because it is easier than arguing? Children who have developed learned helplessness might ask you to put their coat on or tie their shoes even though they know how. They might not take responsibility for remembering their homework, but expect you to drop everything and bring it to the school. Michelle Smith Lank, of Kids World Learning Center in Georgia, cautions us that, “Parents are teaching children their ability to not get things done and robbing them of gaining the skills and practice necessary to develop self-competence. After enough time, children don’t realize their true ability and potential. They begin to lack the tools needed to accomplish the tasks we are asking them to do.”At school, learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness. For example, your student has a quiz on Friday so you offer to help them study the evening before. The first thing out of their mouth is, “I’m going to fail anyway, so why should I waste my time studying?” They feel defeated before they have even started. They do not see that any input on their part will change the outcome of their success. Another behavior is the waiting game. This is when you or the teacher is helping your student with their work and they stay silent until someone gives them the next step or the answer. Does your child wait for someone to point to a hint or give them the answer out of pity or impatience?

Learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness.

 Characteristics of Learned Helplessness

Some characteristics of learned helplessness, as identified by numberworksnwords.com, are:        

  1. Low motivation to learn, and diminished aspirations to succeed in school.
  2. Low outcome expectations; that is, they believe that, no matter what they do in school, the outcome will always be negative (e.g. bad grades). In addition, they believe that they are powerless to prevent or overcome a negative outcome.
  3. Lack of perceived control over their own behavior and the environmental events; one’s own actions cannot lead to success.
  4. Lack of confidence in their skills and abilities (low self-efficacy expectations). These children believe that their school difficulties are caused by their own lack of ability and low intelligence, even when they have adequate ability and normal intelligence. They are convinced that they are unable to perform the required actions to achieve a positive outcome.
  5. They underestimate their performance when they do well in school, attributing success to luck or chance, e.g., “I was lucky that this test was easy.”
  6. They generalize from one failure situation or experience to other situations where control is possible. Because they expect failure all the time, regardless of their real skills and abilities, they underperform all the time.
  7. They focus on what they cannot do, rather than focusing on their strengths and skills.
  8. Because they feel incapable of implementing the necessary courses of action, they develop passivity and their school performance deteriorates.

Conclusion

It is never too late to develop skills to help educate and motivate our children to become the best versions of themselves that they can be—and improve ourselves in the process! In our next two blogs we will explore some of the strategies families can practice at home, and teachers can implement at school, to prevent and overcome learned helplessness.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website