By Mark Wilson

We have all met John.  John is a thirty-five year old who took seven years to get an undergraduate degree.  In the process, he accumulated $40,000 in college debt.  To pay off his debt, he pursued career employment.  However, since graduation he has been fired from three jobs, likely for not showing up on time, and is still living at home with his parents.  He has met many nice girls, but due to his resistant attitude toward commitment, his girl-friends have moved on to other suitors.  He spends countless hours playing video games, watching television, eating carryout, and wondering why the rest of the world treats him so badly.

As parents, we look at John’s story and wonder what went wrong.  We ask ourselves if John’s parents could have done something to help him to be more independent and more successful.  We wonder what life events led John to having this feeling of “learned helplessness.”  After all, if you were to ask John what went wrong in his life, he would probably tell you that the rest of the world is against him.  He would surely take no personal responsibility for the sequence of failures that have become his life.

Learned helplessness is when a child believes that there is absolutely nothing that he can do to fix life’s problems.  Instead, the child avoids impending failures by refusing to attempt the task at hand.  What does this look like?  In a toddler, the parent asks the child to get his sippy cup from the kitchen table and the child responds, “I can’t”.  As an early adolescent, the parent asks the child to do his math homework and the child responds, “I don’t know how”.  As a teen-ager, the parent asks the child to talk to his teacher about his poor biology grade and the child responds, “It’s the teacher’s problem to fix, not mine”.  (Can you see the eyes rolling?)

Here are some tips on combating learned helplessness in your child.  First, understand that the language you use as a parent will either encourage or discourage learned helplessness.  As an example, with the child who doesn’t know how to do his homework, the parent really has two choices.  The parent can say to the child, “Let me sit down with you and do it for you.”, or the parent can say, “Let me show you how to do one problem and then I will sit with you while you do the rest.”  Second, it is important to remember that doing the right thing isn’t always efficient.  It is often quicker and less frustrating for the parent and the child if Mom gets the sippy cup off the table.  However, in doing so, the parent is encouraging learned helplessness.

Here is yet another example.  I am a Principal at a middle school inOaklandCounty.  I was standing in the office when a young lady walked in and pouted that she “was having a really bad day.”  I inquired as to why.  She explained that a kid at school was mean to her, Dad forgot to give her lunch money, and that nobody reminded her to bring her backpack to school.  After talking for a moment, I asked her what she could do to remember her lunch money and backpack tomorrow.  She gave me a few ideas.  I then asked her to do me a favor.  I asked her to go back to class and pretend as if she were having a good day.  Honestly, I never expected this to work.  Although I knew she was feeling helpless when she walked in, since everyone else was responsible for her bad day, I didn’t really expect that giving her ownership of her emotions by asking her to pretend to have a good day would have any impact on how she was feeling.  However, three hours later while monitoring the lunchroom, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around and there stood the student I had spoken with earlier in the day.  She whispered in my ear “You asked me to pretend I was having a good day and I did.  And now, I am having a good day.”  She then walked away.  What a huge success.

So, if you are interested in preventing learned helplessness, here are some phrases to avoid when talking with your children:

  1. Let me handle that.
  2. Let me do that for you.
  3. Give it to me.  I will fix it.
  4. Don’t tell your father.  I will talk to him for you.
  5. That is too hard for you.  Let me do it.

Replace these phrases with words that encourage independence and prevent learned helplessness in children.

  1. Would you like to talk about some ideas for handling that?
  2. Let me show you one example and then you can try.
  3. Sounds like you’re having a problem.  Do you have any ideas as to how you can fix it?
  4. Take a risk and see if you can do it.
  5. What solutions have you though of so far?  Maybe we can come up with some more together.

Remember John?  He is the thirty-five year old with a mountain of college debt, difficulty keeping a job, and trouble maintaining relationships.  John isn’t a bad person.  He just lacks the ability to be independent and looks to other people to solve his life problems.  Help your child to follow a different life path.  Create responsible, happy, healthy, independent children by using language skills that prevent learned helplessness.

Mark Wilson is Executive Director for K-12 Instruction for Farmington Schools.  Mark has a Masters Degree and Education Specialist Degree in the field of Education.  MARK.WILSON@farmington.k12.mi.us