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Learned Helplessness in Children: Causes, Signs, & How to Overcome it

What’s inside this article: A look at learned helplessness in children including what it is, the signs of learned helplessness, its effect on mental health, and how to help children overcome it.

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Sometimes, when people feel like they have no control over their lives or what happens to them, they begin behaving in a helpless manner, known as “learned helplessness” in psychology.

This directly contradicts what most of us expect others to do when bad things happen. You may think you’d do whatever was necessary to change a bad situation. 

But, when someone has learned helplessness, they don’t take any action to change their lives, even when a solution is available to them. 

Learned Helplessness in Children

Who is at risk of developing learned helplessness?

  • Children with unreliable or negligent caregivers are most likely to display learned helplessness.

    Researchers found those who grew up in institutions such as foster care showed signs of learned helplessness even as infants.  
  • Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are also more likely to develop learned helplessness. Research suggests this may be because autistic children may receive an unusual level of “noncontingent reinforcement (NCR).”

    NCR means giving a reinforcer at a set interval to prevent an inappropriate behavior, rather than as a reward for displaying appropriate behavior.

    ABA therapists often use this strategy; it’s also used in operant conditioning. NCR is a common component in school behavior intervention plans because it’s based on behavior modification theory. 

    The idea is that the autistic child will no longer feel motivated to engage in the inappropriate behavior.

    However, as psychology continues to evolve, as does our understanding of autism, we know behavior is a lot more complicated than this. This is why an educational, skill-based approach is generally viewed as the better option long term.
  • Children with learning disabilities or who struggle academically may also develop learned helplessness.

    If they’ve tried yet repeatedly done poorly in school, they may begin feeling like they have no control over their academic performance. When this happens, they may stop trying altogether.

Signs of Learned Helplessness in Children

Some signs of learned helplessness in children:

  • Doesn’t ask for help
  • Easily frustrated
  • Doesn’t put much effort into their school work
  • Gives up easily
  • Low self-esteem
  • Passive personality
  • Procrastinates
  • Low intrinsic motivation

How Does Learned Helplessness Affect Children’s Mental Health?

Kids showing signs of learned helplessness are also more likely to have anxiety, depression, or both. 

Learned helplessness makes mental health issues worse because it leads people to feel like there’s no point in doing anything to make their mental health better. 

Kids in this situation may refuse therapy or practicing new coping strategies that could help them feel better. 

How to Help Kids Overcome Learned Helplessness

Research shows that the earlier we intervene, the more likely learned helplessness can be successfully decreased. 

Here are some strategies for overcoming learned helplessness.

Set Kids up for Success  

Start small, have your child do something you know they can do, in a situation where they’re likely to be successful. 

Once finished, offer verbal reinforcement and praise for their work. 

This strategy helps build children’s self-esteem, and shows them they can do things successfully.

Praise Effort

Trying your best is just as important, if not more important, than actually succeeding. 

When you see your child studying hard for a test, or trying their best on a school project, or practicing before a soccer game – praise them. 

Do so when you notice the behavior – for example, ” I’m proud of your hard work and commitment to your soccer team. You are a great teammate.” 

This reinforces the fact that it’s not the winning that matters. 

Don’t do things for your child that they can do independently 

If kids lack the skill to do something without help, then you absolutely should help them. 

However, sometimes we end up doing things for our children that they can do on their own. This happens for many reasons – it could just be the morning rush, you don’t have time to wait for them to tie their shoes, or they may refuse to do certain things and it’s easier to do it for them.

Whatever the case may be – giving your child independence helps them feel capable in all areas of life. 

Teach Lagging Skills

If your child is displaying learned helplessness in math – teaching them how to do the math isn’t necessarily the solution. 

Remember, they feel like no matter what they do, they aren’t good at math and will fail regardless. 

There are otherless obvious lagging skills that need development. For example, flexible thinking skills, frustration tolerance, or underlying communication skills getting in the way. 

Check out this thinking skills inventory from Think Kids to help you start thinking about what lagging skills may impact your child’s behavior. 

Encourage a Growth Mindset

People with growth mindsets persevere when faced with failures. They are resilient and believe it takes effort to learn new skills. 

Kids with a growth mindset have a stronger desire to learn. They’re more likely to accept criticism, take on new challenges, and increase their skills and abilities.

BigLifeJournal offers various materials for kids of all ages to help teach them to have a Growth Mindset. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps people overcome the thinking and behavioral patterns that come hand in hand with learned helplessness.

CBT helps you identify negative thinking patterns, notice unhelpful thoughts, and then replace these thoughts with more positive and rational thoughts.

Check out these 15 CBT-based games for kids here.

mother putting on childs shoe or her as an example of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness may impact your child’s mental health and their general well-being. 

Not everyone responds to experiences the same way. Some children are more likely to experience learned helplessness than others. 

Learned helplessness may or may not become generalized. For example, a child showing helplessness in math after repeated failures may still apply themselves in other school subjects where they’ve had success. But, in some cases they may stop trying in school completely. It depends on the individual and their experiences.

If you’re concerned that learned helplessness is having a negative impact on your child’s life, consider talking to their doctor about steps you can take.

There are parenting strategies and clinical treatment options that can help your child replace their negative thinking patterns with more positive ones.

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