Today’s blog is the second in our I’m Being Challenged By My Child series and we are going to be thinking about ‘learned helplessness’ and how to break this debilitating habit.

Learned helplessness in our young people comes from the well-intentioned but clearly developed pattern of ‘I’ll do it for you!” Learned helplessness is the fruit of stepping in too soon and too often. It also comes with it’s own unique perspective of, “I can’t do this, can you do it for me?”

There are two main reasons learned helplessness is problematic. The first is a skewed self-perception and the second is the matter of impeded problem solving skills. Our sense of agency is directly linked to our feelings of capacity to impact upon our world. If we always need others to help us achieve, even the smallest of goals, then our sense of agency is considerably diminished. The perception of our capacity therefore directly impacts what we choose to do, how we do it and whom we do it with. So we have to get this right for our children and ourselves.

The second issue learned helplessness creates is the matter of impeded problem solving skills. If the first thought to pop out of your child’s mouth is, ‘can you do this for me?’ then only superficial problem solving processes have been engaged. We know they are superficial when tasks become hard and consequent frustration leads to cessation rather than exploration. Robust problem solvers; wonder, ask ‘what if’, make suggestions, try a number of approaches and then seek help to collaborate and investigate the issue further. Competent problem solvers don’t need to easily give up because they have other accessible options to utilise to help find a solution.

To break the habit of learned helplessness try changing your approach to one of being curious. Here are a few examples of questions and processes I consistently use because they have a big impact in short period of time. They build upon the opportunity offered, cement agency and strengthen self-perception:

  • Great question, where did it come from?
  • What ideas do you have already about this problem?
  • What if we tried to solve this problem together?
  • Let’s try your idea and see what might happen?
  • I love your thinking, have you tried this idea yet?
  • It’s frustrating when things don’t work the first time isn’t it, what didn’t work so far so we don’t repeat them?
  • I am so impressed with what you have already tried, great work, have you considered this idea?
  • Lets take a break, grab a snack and come back to this problem, you and I can fix this for sure.

This process of being curious supports your child’s agency, acknowledges that frustration is real and models a way forward. The role of the adult is to guide and maintain connection between questions, thoughts and feelings so that great outcomes are achieved.

Six months of persistence will see your child more confidently handling problems. Learned helplessness will be a thing of the past and active engaged problem solving the way of the future.