Learned Helplessness

‘Learned helplessness’ describes the sense of powerlessness felt by some individuals when they are presented with a problem or challenge. They will not act to help themselves because they believe that there is nothing they can do: the situation is hopeless. 

Some individuals develop learned helplessness as a result of repeated negative life experience. Others will develop learned helplessness as a result of mimicking the behaviour of their close contacts: parents, extended family, friends and peers: – 

  • Their family will talk about everyone else being luckier and more fortunate than them.
  • Their parents may believe that other people face challenges in life, but the challenges that they experience are exceptional.
  • Their friends will spend more time discussing their problems, than exploring possible solutions.

How can we avoid passing learned helplessness on to children?

  1. Encourage the child to take responsibility. If they put the blame on others, they won’t have the opportunity to improve. 

Child: ‘The Chemistry teacher didn’t explain the test properly, so I didn’t know what to revise.’

Adult: ‘Maybe next time, you could ask her to explain what the test is about. I bet the whole class would be grateful for that.’

  1. Express confidence in the child’s ability to deal with challenges and to handle tricky situations. Give them time to have a moan, then move them on to consider what their options are. 
  2. Focus on taking the positives from a situation. Practise looking for silver linings.

Adult: ‘OK, so Alex was selected as goalie for this game, but the other team’s strikers were county players, and scored twenty goals. I expect now, Alex really wishes you’d been chosen instead!’

  1. Set an example. Don’t be seen to brood over difficulties, be seen to take action.
  2. Acknowledge that life is difficult sometimes, but that there are always other people who are worse off. 
  3. Children need to be taught to be pro-active: to speak up and explain what is wrong, to ask for help, rather than sulk, get upset or withdraw.
  4. Allow children generous amounts of time for free play to give them practice in sorting out disagreements by themselves.
  5. Allow choices to show that there is always something you can control. 

Adult: ‘Which T-shirt would you like to wear today?’ ‘Do you want peas or sweetcorn with your fish fingers?’ ‘Are you going to do that homework before or after tea?’

  1. Help the child to look at the facts of a situation, rather than focus on how they feel.

Adult: ‘Did Jacob really shout at you because he hates you and doesn’t want to be friends anymore, or might it have been because you kicked his ball over the fence? If you go next door when Mrs Smith gets home, I’m sure she’ll let you get it back for him.’

  1. Be aware of what you say. Repeatedly recounting how unhappy you were at secondary school because you were teased by other children or had strict teachers, may make the child expect to be bullied or to be wary of teaching staff.

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