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Why Every Parent Needs to Know About Learned Helplessness

Plus, four tips to prevent it

Published on: September 21, 2021

girl wearing a turtleneck sweater with her chin tucked into the neck and her eyes looking off camera

Some people will do anything to avoid driving if their last experience was a disaster. Others will avoid certain social gatherings because they never have anything to say. Others will not apply for a promotion because they just know they’ll never get selected. Our past experiences influence our behavior, and when those experiences have been consistently negative, we can adopt what has been described as learned helplessness. 

Learned helplessness is a condition with which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, feeling as though they will fail before they even try. Unfortunately, this behavior is quite common in childhood. Signs of learned helplessness manifest in various ways, such as when a child:

  • Is always pessimistic about their performance and believes they will fail.
  • Makes little effort because they have given up after repeated failures.
  • Lacks motivation and purports to “hate school.”
  • Rarely asks for help because they think asking for help will change nothing.
  • Lacks confidence in their abilities.
  • Focuses on their weaknesses.
  • Takes a passive approach to almost everything.

Understanding the origins of learned helplessness 

Ivan Pavlov is often referred to as the father of classical conditioning. One of his best-known experiments began when he noticed that each time he gave food to a dog, the dog salivated. He then decided to ring a bell each time he fed the dog. Over time, the dog learned to associate the bell with food; every time it heard the bell, it would salivate, whether food was present or not.

Classical conditioning was a great scientific discovery. It helped show that associating a conditioned stimulus (the food) to an unconditioned stimulus (the bell) could lead to a specific conditioned response (salivating). Classical conditioning studies made it possible to make great advances in understanding human responses such as fear and anxiety.

It was through classical conditioning that pioneering psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues developed the theory of learned helplessness. Their own well-documented experiment with canine subjects provided proof that learned helplessness — that is, the belief that one cannot get out of a situation perceived as hopeless — exists.

What we know about learned helplessness and children

Ever since those studies determined that feelings of helplessness are learned, other researchers interested in the subject have come to similar conclusions. In one study, researchers sought to understand how failure would affect students’ future performance. Children were divided into two groups and given the same test, the only difference being that the first group began with extremely difficult questions then proceeded to the easiest questions, and the second group began with the easiest questions before proceeding to the most difficult ones. 

The researchers found that the students who had begun with the most difficult questions performed worse on the section with the easy questions, possibly because the hard questions they had begun with led them to doubt their abilities. Science has shown that negative experiences affect behavior and performance, and often lead to feelings of helplessness. Worse, this state of learned helpless is common among children and can persist into adulthood if they do not learn to change how they respond to failure.

Learned helplessness occurs after repeated negative experiences. This explains why the condition is common among children raised in difficult family contexts. For example, a child who is accustomed to being ignored (due to neglect or abuse) learns not to ask for help. It is also frequent among children with learning difficulties or those who are hyperactive or lack the ability to concentrate. This is simply because children who repeatedly meet with failure may learn to view themselves as incapable of success and thus give up. But there is good news: Learned helplessness is just that, a learned behavior, and therefore it can be unlearned. Here are four tips to help a child overcome learned helplessness:

1. Help your child develop an optimistic explanatory style.

“Is the glass half empty or half full?” is a common expression thought to help determine whether someone has an optimistic or pessimistic disposition. As it turns out, how your child mentally explains to himself the events that happen in their life has an impact on how they view and react to those events. If your child often views the events in their life as beyond their control, they learn that there is not much they can do to change them. However, if they have an optimistic explanatory style, they know that while they may not necessarily control the things that happen in life, these experiences are simply temporary setbacks that will pass.

An easy way to help your child develop a positive explanatory style is to adopt and employ one yourself. Think of how you react to the unexpected events in your life; do you teach your child to develop a pessimistic or an optimistic outlook to life?

2. Help your child understand the link between effort and success.

In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck, Ph.D., explains that a child’s perception of failure has an impact on their future behavior. Helping your child develop a growth mindset means teaching them that effort can improve performance. You can help your child adopt a growth mindset by encouraging them to reflect on what they can do in the face of failure:

  • What else can you try?
  • What other strategies can lead to the results you seek?
  • What can you start doing to ensure that you get the results you want next time?

Your child needs to know that they are responsible for their results, and that their behavior (adopting appropriate revision strategies, asking for help, revising regularly instead of cramming at the last minute, playing their musical instrument for a few minutes every day, etc.) largely determines success.  

Telling your child that you know they are capable of success is rarely enough. Remember that they need to know and apply explicit strategies that will lead to that success. 

3. Help your child focus on their strengths.

Children struggling with learned helplessness are caught in a vicious cycle. They repeatedly fail and therefore learn to view failure as inescapable. But all children have strengths, and facilitating the discovery of those strengths can help them overcome feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. 

Take a moment and observe where your children’s strengths lie: What do they like doing? Where are their talents? When are they happiest? When do they show the most focus and concentration? 

Show your child that they are capable of success.

4. Multiply your child’s opportunities for success.

In the experiment cited earlier, the children who began with the difficult questions learned to doubt their abilities and performed worse on the easier questions. If your child repeatedly encounters difficult and complex situations in which it is hard to succeed, they learn that it is hopeless to even try. That is why it is important to have appropriate expectations — neither too hard nor too easy — to avoid learned helplessness. This may mean waiting for your child to master one specific skill or task before moving on to the next, assisting them in doing a chore before letting them do it independently, or breaking up tasks to make them more manageable.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with learned helplessness is to let your child know that it is okay to ask for help.

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