How Kids Learn to Be Helpless

Many kids who struggle at school do so not because they are incapable of success, but because they have learned to believe that they are. This is a psychological phenomena known as Learned Helplessness; a sense of powerlessness that we often develop at a young age as a result of traumatic events, or persistently failing to succeed at a particular tasks.


Determining If A Child Has Learned To Be Helpless


When your child engages with a task that they consistently struggle with, how do they explain it?


Learned HelplessnessWhen asked to explain or describe why they failed a test, or struggle with homework, it’s extremely common for kids (and even adults) to say something along the lines of “I’ll just never be good at X subject”, “X subject just isn’t for me”, “My family has always struggled with X”, “I’ll never be good at X”.


This explanation is what psychologists would refer to as an internal, stable, global attribution; and it is a powerful indicator that a person has learned to be helpless at this particular task.


‘Internal’, ‘Stable’, and ‘Global’ are terms that describe the way a person describes the causes of a negative experience. They mean:


Internal: Their experience is a result of something about them. They believe they struggle with a given task or subject because they do not have it in their nature to succeed.
Stable: Whatever this thing about them that causes them to fail is, it is not something that they can change.
Global: This internal incapability will create negative experiences whenever and wherever they need to use it in life. If they struggle in math, they will struggle at taxes. If english, they will struggle at writing, etc.


When a person describes negative events in a way that is internal, stable, and global; they are exhibiting what is called Pessimistic Attribution, and have learned to believe they are helplessly incapable of success at whatever it is they are describing.


How We Learn Helplessness

Charisse Nixon, Ph.D Developmental Psychologist at Penn State, demonstrated learned helplessness to her class in this video below:

In this demonstration, Dr. Nixon handed out worksheets to her class. The work on most of these worksheets was easily performed, the work on the rest was primarily impossible; with the exception of the last question.


Students were told to complete questions one at a time, and raise their hands when they were finished. Of course, most of the class would finish in seconds, leaving those with the impossible questions flustered and anxious.


How do you think the struggling students described what was happening to them? Do you think they thought something was wrong with the test, or wrong with them?


After the nature of Dr. Nixon’s trick is revealed, the student’s open up about how they felt about the experience, and every one reports feelings related to inadequacy, stress, confusion, and worry.


Because they internalized the nature of this negative experience; many of the students did not even attempt the final question! Those that did, did so with reduced confidence and significant confusion.


Anyone who learns anything can have a similar experience, and it’s when we have this experience repeatedly over time that we develop


How we Unlearn Helplessness


If you’ve identified that your child demonstrates Learned Helplessness concerning their struggle or failure at a given task, helping them unlearn their helplessness is a matter of showing them a different way to understand their struggle.
Consider helping your child cultivate an awareness of why they explain the nature of this struggle in this way. Help them challenge the internal, stable, and global attributes of their belief. Consider these examples:


  • ICompetent Child Homeworks it possible that this struggle doesn’t have to do with them, but rather their actions? It could be that they fail because they do not practice, because they do not have faith in themselves, not because they are incapable!
  • Even if they are incapable, how do they know that they will always be incapable? Surely they’ve gotten better at other things they’ve struggled with; how do they know they can’t get better at this one?
  • Even if they struggle with this task (for example; algebra), how do they know they won’t excel at others? (Calculus, engineering, physics!)


We learn to be helpless as a result of a lifetime of negative experiences with the thing we feel helpless about, so feeling competent and capable will not occur overnight. Start small, and with incremental success, as well as the odd failure help guide your child to feeling powerful over that which makes them feel powerless!


For more information on Learned Helplessness, and insight into how you can help your child overcome it, get in touch with Ottawa Youth Counselling.