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It's Not the End of the World: How to Help Your Child Overcome Learned Helplessness

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

“I’ll never be good at math.”

“Writing is too hard. I give up.”

“People always let me down. Why should I bother trying to make friends?”

If one of these or deceptions, or a similar belief, has taken root in your child’s thinking, he or she may be struggling with learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a state of feeling that you have no power to control your environment or circumstances. You believe “Nothing I do matters,” and fall into a habit of giving up without trying, explained Dr. Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child.

The reasoning is simple: If you don’t try, you won’t fail. Seligman calls this unhealthy way of coping “maladaptive passivity.”

Unfortunately, a student “who performs poorly in school…[may] conclude that he or she is simply stupid,” said Dr. David Dillard-Wright, associate professor at University of South Carolina Aiken. “This person may take what amounts to something incidental and relatively minor and take it to be a defining and pervasive feature.

“Learned helplessness is the opposite of self-efficacy. It is the belief that what we do ultimately does not matter, that we will be stuck in the same life patterns no matter what we think, say, or do,” Dillard-Wright said. “When we learn to view ourselves as helpless, we give away our personal power, falling to the trap of futility and resignation.

“Learned helplessness stems from a generalization from previous experience: Things have always been this way, therefore they will always be this way. The generalization is faulty, because it does not distinguish between a condition that is merely long-lasting and one that is permanent.”

Clinical researcher Lauren DiMaria agrees. “Your child may develop the expectation that future events will be as uncontrollable as past ones. Essentially, your child may feel that there is nothing he can do to change the outcome of an event, so he tells himself he might as well not even try,” she said.

“For example, if a child studies for an exam and still receives a poor grade, he may feel he has no control over his performance, so he might decide to give up participating and studying altogether,” DiMaria continued. “He may then generalize these feelings to other aspects of his life and lose the motivation to succeed, as he believes that his success is out of his control.”

Parents can unwittingly contribute to learned helplessness. “Over-functioning parents usually end up raising under-functioning children,” explain Michael Anderson and Timothy Johanson, authors of Gist: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids. “These are the parents who do way too much for their kids. For example, this happens when a parent continues to wake up an older child in the morning, making her lunch and gathering all the essentials for her backpack while watching the clock to make sure she is on time.

“Young people want to feel at peace and competent in their lives. While they are grateful for help from Mom or Dad, all this over-involvement severely threatens their confidence that they can manage their lives on their own.”

Learned helplessness contributors:

· Be a helicopter parent, constantly intervening in the smallest activities and conversations.

· Do everything for your child.

· Don’t follow through with consequences.

· Demand everyone does things your way or else.

Rather than help your child, these actions deplete your child’s optimism about his abilities and the future. They eliminate his choices, erode his sense of responsibility, and diminish any confidence that he can function on his own.

The good news is that learned helplessness can be unlearned and replaced with a healthy dose of optimism. The story we tell ourselves, i.e. how we explain the outcome of a situation, makes all the difference.

According to Seligman, here are the characteristics of learned helplessness:

· Permanent—This will last forever. Things always go wrong. Nothing will ever get better.

· Pervasive, global—I’m a total failure. This event went badly, so everything else in my life will go badly.

· Personal, internal—It’s all my fault. I’m to blame.

· Uncontrollable—There’s nothing I can do about it.

In contrast, the optimist’s self-talk goes like this:

· Temporary—Things will get better.

· Local, specific—The cause of the negative event only relates to this specific situation.

· Not personal, external—This isn’t entirely my fault. Other things/people are also to blame.

· Controllable—There is something I can do to make things better.

DiMaria advises teaching “your child to dispute their own negative thoughts and [promote] their problem-solving and social skills.” Here are some suggested scripts:

  • “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?"

  • "You want to give up or put off tasks when things are too hard. That makes sense to me. I'm here for you and can help you when you need it."

  • “What can you do? Is there one step you can take to move forward?”

Additionally, give your child space to try, fail, and try again without intervening. Give him regular responsibilities. Don’t step in when he forgets his chores or assignments. Instead, hold him accountable to completing them.

Also, psychologist Dr. Cheryl Chase recommends helping your child “harness the power of ‘yet.’” For example, instead of repeating “I’m not good at math,” tell yourself “I’m not good at math YET!”

“It’s important to understand that learned helplessness isn’t laziness. And while it may look as if these children don’t care, in reality they’ve just lost hope,” Anderson and Johanson point out. Our job as parents is to help our children find hope and discover a sense of control once again.


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