Some people will do anything to avoid driving if their last experience was a disaster. Others will avoid certain social gatherings because “they never have anything to say”. Others still will not apply for that promotion because they “just know they’ll never get selected”.
Our past experiences influence our behavior, and when those experiences are constantly negative, we adopt what has been described as learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is knowing you will fail even before you try. It is giving up even before you begin. As Sun Tzu said, it is “knowing the battle is lost before it is ever fought”. Unfortunately, this behavior is quite common in childhood. It could look anything like:
- Your son is always pessimistic about his performance and always thinks he’ll fail
- Your daughter hardly puts in any effort because she has given up after repeated failure
- Your child lacks motivation and “hates school”
- Your child rarely asks for help because he thinks asking for help will “change nothing”
- Your son lacks confidence in his abilities
- Your daughter focuses on her weaknesses
- Your child takes a passive approach to almost everything
Understanding the origins of learned helplessness
Ivan Pavlov is often referred to as the “father of classical conditioning”. One of the best known experiments began when he noticed that each time he would give a dog food, the dog would salivate. He then decided to ring a bell each time he fed the dog. With time, the dog learned to associate the bell with food. In other words, every time it heard the bell, it would salivate, whether there was food or not.
Classical conditioning was a great scientific discovery. It helped show that associating a conditioned stimulus (the food) to an unconditioned stimulus (the bell) could lead to a specific conditioned response (salivating). Classical conditioning studies made it possible to make great advances in understanding human behavior such as fear and anxiety.
It was through classical conditioning that Martin Seligman and his colleagues developed the theory of learned helplessness. In a well-known experiment, these researchers divided dogs into three group and administered a light shock to the dogs in group 2 and 3. While the dogs in group 2 were able to press on a lever to stop the shock, those in group 3 had no way of ending the shock.
After doing this repeatedly, the dogs were placed in crates with a fence they could easily jump over. The crates were divided into two sides – one side was electrified, the other was not. The researchers assumed that the dogs placed on the electrified side would jump to the other side of the fence when they received the light shock. They were surprised to see that while the dogs in group 2 immediately jumped to the other side of the fence when they received the light shock, those in group 3 simply lay down after receiving this shock.
Seligman’s experiment showed that the dogs in group 3 had learned to expect failure – they had learned that the shocks were inescapable, so they gave up. This experiment provided proof that learned helplessness exists, that is, the belief that one cannot get out of a situation perceived as hopeless.
What we know about learned helplessness and children
Ever since the studies that showed that feelings of helplessness are “learned”, other researchers interested in the subject have come to similar conclusions. In one study, researchers sought to understand how failure would affect students’ future performance. Children were divided into two groups and given the same test, the only difference being that the first group began with extremely difficult questions then proceeded to the easiest questions, and the second group began with the easiest questions before proceeding to the more difficult ones.
The researchers found that the students who had begun with the most difficult questions performed worse on the section with the easy questions, possibly because the hard questions they had begun with led them to doubt their abilities.
Science has shown that negative experiences affect behavior and performance and often lead to feelings of helplessness. Worse, this state of learned helpless is common among children and can persist in adulthood if they do not learn to change how they react to failure.
Learned helplessness occurs after repeated negative experiences. This explains why it is common among children in difficult family contexts. For example, a child who is accustomed to being ignored (neglect, abuse) learns not to ask for help. It is also frequent among children with learning difficulties or those who are hyperactive or lack concentration. This is simply because children who repeatedly meet with failure may learn to view themselves as “incapable of success” and thus give up. But there is good news: learned helplessness is a “learned” behavior, and it can therefore be “unlearned”. Here are four tips to get started.
Four tips to help your child overcome learned helplessness
- Help your child develop an optimistic explanatory style
“Is the glass half empty or half full?” is a common expression thought to help determine whether someone has an optimistic or pessimistic disposition. As it turns out, how your children mentally explain to themselves the events that happen in their lives has an impact on how they view and react to those events.
If they often view the events in their lives as “beyond their control”, they learn that there is not much they can do to change them, but if they have an optimistic explanatory style, they know that while they may not necessarily control the things that happen in their lives, those things are simply temporary setbacks that will pass.
An easy way to help your child develop a positive explanatory style it to develop one yourself. Think of how you react to the unexpected events in your life – do you teach your child to develop a pessimistic or an optimistic outlook to life?
2) Help your child understand the link between effort and success
The studies by Carol Dweck on the development of a growth mindset helped show that your child’s perception of failure has an impact on their future behavior. Helping them develop a growth mindset means teaching them that effort can improve their performance. It means helping them adopt a growth mindset mentality by encouraging them to reflect on what they can do in the face of failure:
- What will you do next time?
- What else can you try?
- What other strategies can lead to the results you seek?
- What can you start doing to ensure that you get the results you want next time?
Your child needs to know that they are responsible for their results, and that their behavior (adopting appropriate revision strategies, asking for help, revising regularly rather than last-minute cramming, playing their music instrument for a few minutes every day, etc.) largely determines their success.
Telling your child that you know “they are capable of success” is rarely enough. Remember that resources that can help her apply explicit strategies exist.
3) Help your child focus on her strengths
Children struggling with learned helplessness are caught in a vicious cycle. They repeatedly fail and therefore learn to view failure as inescapable. But all children have strengths and helping them discover those strengths can help them overcome feelings of hopelessness.
Take a moment and observe where your child’s strengths lie: what do they like doing? Where do their talents lie? When are they happiest? When do they show most focus and concentration?
Show your child that they are capable of success.
4) Multiply your child’s opportunities for success
In the experiment I cited earlier, the children who began with the difficult questions learned to doubt their abilities and performed worse on the easier questions. If your child repeatedly encounters difficult and complex situations in which it is hard to succeed, they learn that it is hopeless to even try. That is why it is important to have appropriate expectations – neither too hard nor too easy – to avoid learned helplessness. This may mean waiting for them to master one specific area before moving on to the next, assisting them to do a chore before letting them do it by themselves or breaking up tasks to make them more manageable.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with learned helplessness is that it is important to let your child know that it is okay to ask for help.