Do any of your children suffer from learned helplessness? Do they seem to give up or quit as soon as a task gets difficult? Do they ever refuse to try activities, or get labeled as lazy or unmotivated? Are mistakes or failures usually blamed on other people or conditions? Well, the good news is that all learned behaviour can be unlearned. Here are three keys you can use to help your friends or family members overcome learned helplessness:
(1) Understand the nature of the condition
Learned helplessness is a form of conditioned response–when someone comes to expect an outcome regardless of the conditions. For example, if your son constantly studies and fails tests, then he may eventually come to believe that no amount of effort or study would ever help him pass. In this simplified example, your son’s constant frustration could lead him to automatically believe that the factors for success are external and out of his control. Therefore, there is no point in even trying.
(2) Adjust the belief failure is inevitable
Once you understand the nature of the condition the next step is to help your children become aware of negative self-talk running through their heads, and try to re-write the scripts. Like the story of The Little Engine That Could, they need to immediately replace negative thoughts with positive, self-affirming ones like, “I can do this.” However, they may need your help by sitting down and talking about:
• Past successes and how they were achieved,
• The factors within their control (getting extra help, studying, strategies to compensate for learning disabilities, etc.)
• New support structures or things they could try
• All the other strengths and areas of competence they have (keeping the failure in perspective)
• How mistakes are good, expected, and are opportunities from which to learn–not things to be avoided.
(3) Watch how you talk and respond
The words and phrases parents and teachers use can inadvertently help to strengthen feeling of learned helplessness. The next time you feel yourself about to say, “That’s too hard for you”, or “Let me do it for you”, or “I’ll talk with your teacher for you”, or “Our family isn’t good at Math,” you may want to consider something like:
• “I know you can do it”
• “I’ll start it for you, then you can finish it”
• “What strategies have you already tried?”
• “Let’s find a way you can do this yourself”
• “How could you get more help with this?”
We all have things we’re not good at, however as adults we can often avoid these tasks or hire someone to do them for us. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for struggling students who, each day, are forced to confront their weaknesses in math, reading, and writing. While the result may be chronic frustration, it can also lead to an instilled sense of learned helplessness. What is important is that we take steps to overcome this condition before it worsens and our children over-generalize and view failure in one area to mean they are “dumb” or “stupid”.
About the author
Ready to give your child a head start on success? Check out Rob’s coaching programs, workshops, and newsletter for parents and youth. Visit www.YouthCoachCanada.com or call 905.515.9822.
An award-winning educator and Parenting & Youth Coach, Rob Stringer BA, BEd, CPC has spent almost two decades helping kids, teens, and adults meet with success, and live lives they LOVE! Although based outside of Toronto, Rob’s coaching practice is global with teen and adult clients around the world.