In 1952, champion long-distance swimmer Florence Chadwick made her first attempt at swimming from Catalina Island to the California mainland. The challenge was within her reach — she’d recently broken two time records for swimming across the English Channel. But the fog was dense that day, obscuring her view of her support boats and completely hiding the opposite shoreline. After 15 hours in the water, Florence told her supporters that she was exhausted and couldn’t go on.
“You’re very close, Florence!” her mother said from one of the boats. Florence tried to press on, but she felt helpless to continue swimming. She begged to be pulled into a boat — where she soon learned that her destination was less than a mile away.
Later, Florence commented on how the demoralized her. “If I could have just seen the shore, I would have made it,” she said.
Florence’s time in that fog provides a good illustration for a phenomenon that’s becoming all too common — adolescents who seem ready to quit on life. These kids exhibit a condition that psychologists call “learned helplessness.” In recent years, people who work with youth are noticing the pattern a lot more than what we’d observed in previous decades. The American Psychological Association calls learned helplessness the “landmark theory of the century.”
“What is learned helplessness?”
Kids with this condition no longer believe they can positively affect the direction of their lives. They can’t see through the fog. Effort seems futile, so they give up trying, only engaging in tasks that require little effort. They wonder why everything is so difficult compared to their peers. They have little or no motivation or incentive to achieve, and they’re not interested in learning new ways to cope with life’s struggles. Their natural joy of learning seems to be gone. They won’t readily accept praise or kindness—and they’re often unaffected by criticism. They seem apathetic and disinterested. This resembles depression, but is different. Depression is a more pervasive mental health issue, but learned helplessness functions primarily within a system.
An example is a student who performs poorly on math tests and assignments, then studies hard and does poorly on a unit test. Over time he begins to believe that nothing he does will have any effect on his math performance. He won’t even attempt to do math problems he may have completed successfully two years earlier. Learned helplessness has set in, and a new problem, other than math, has been created.
It’s important to understand that learned helplessness isn’t laziness. And while it may look as if these children don’t care, in reality they’ve just lost hope—they can’t understand how to get to shore.
Does your child need help seeing through the fog? Take heart because learned helplessness is, well … learned, and it can be unlearned. By recognizing how it happens and addressing those contributing factors, parents can rescue a child who is creeping toward hopelessness.
How learned helplessness occurs in families
What, specifically, is causing the condition of learned helplessness? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer, but learned helplessness is likely brought on by a number of factors:
When chaos and inconsistency reign in a home, kids start believing they can’t influence or affect a good outcome out of even the most basic situations. This is often seen in dysfunctional and alcoholic homes. For the kids in these homes, life is random and unpredictable; kids have no confidence that making good choices actually pays off, or that bad choices have negative consequences. Due to the roller coaster of parental emotions and responses, life simply can’t be decoded. That dynamic creates depression and helplessness.
Addictions, affairs, painful marriages, secrets and parental absence can all contribute to an environment that is too irregular and unpredictable for a child to feel secure in his ability to change things for the better.
Over-functioning parents usually end up raising under-functioning children. These are the parents who do way too much for their kids. For example, this happens when a parent continues to wake up an older child in the morning, making her lunch and gathering all the essentials for her backpack while watching the clock to make sure she is on time.
Young people want to feel at peace and competent in their lives. While they are grateful for help from Mom or Dad, all this over-involvement severely threatens their confidence that they can manage their lives on their own.
Learned helplessness can result from pressure to enter into a world for which the child is not yet ready. A child feels stressed when he is ill-prepared for something. The stress creates fear, and fear slows learning, which prevents him from getting out in front of the challenge.
There are many stresses on today’s children, at least half of them unnecessary. Kids are hurried along in growth. They are tested, ranked, pushed and pressured. Schools and parents try to cram their children into the top 5% of society, constantly competing in one-upmanship.
Some kids respond well to the pressure. But others can’t handle excessive stress. It stifles their learning and creativity. When adults or peers tell a teenager he should be ready to do something and he isn’t, the teen often thinks there’s something wrong with him. One 16-year-old may be ready to drive a car in city traffic, whereas another 16-year-old just isn’t ready. When a child knows he isn’t ready for something, and life pressure tells him he should be ready, he feels defective.
One big stressor for both adults and children is that they never feel done. Consider a teenager who you’ve given a clear but limited set of expectations. Turn in assignments, study for tests, help out around the house — the teen uses this to build a rough outline of what is expected of her. The reward she is looking for? To feel like she has accomplished her parents’ expectations. But what if she feels like she can never fulfill those expectations?
When parents heap more and more expectations on a child, they contribute to that child’s sense of never being able to finish. Watch your little brother, lose 5 pounds, start violin lessons, unload the groceries, clean your room — when the teen’s outline of her parents’ expectations constantly changes, she begins to feel helpless. This is even more aggravated when parents constantly correct the teen and remind her that she is falling short of accomplishing the list.
Help for the helpless
Kids who struggle with learned helplessness often think they’ve dug a hole too deep to get out of. College entrance exams, six assignments due, no money, a messy room, lost friendships, lost status or a lost passion for life — they believe that the amount of energy to catch up now will overwhelm them. What’s the point? Parents don’t understand when a child they love more than life itself, who is wonderful and precious, repeatedly messes up. How do you help a child when too much help partially created the mess in the first place?
To head off learned helplessness in your home, first consider your attitude, and have compassion for these kids; they aren’t lazy or bad. Let good enough be good enough. A child with learned helplessness may be a great kid, but he is never going to be an overachiever in any measurable way until his beliefs change. That’s fine. Just enjoy him.
If you over-function as a parent, gradually cut back on doing things for your child. Offer to work with your child in the beginning, but do not do everything for her. Working with her is immensely healing. If she quits, you quit. Perhaps a tutor with a contagious love of learning can help with this role. Make sure you don’t nag your child, but parent intentionally and quietly.
It’s easier to avoid nagging if you let the little stuff go while holding your child accountable to the reasonable expectations you have agreed to. Clearly and briefly tell your child that he has or hasn’t met the expectations. Use minimal encouragement or criticism — give just the facts. When it is true, tell your child that she is doing fine. Tell her to relax. Say it as often as you can when it’s true. Tell your child that he is on his own timetable. Consistently encourage him by telling him that you won’t worried about beating other kids to the finish line.
You’ll be doing your children a big favor if you help them disconnect from technology so they find peace. Don’t let them take their smartphones to bed, to Grandma’s, on a walk or other places where the goal is to focus on something other than their device. Perhaps most importantly, model that principle in your own usage of technology.
Allow your child to struggle and experience the cost of underachieving. Take away his car or Xbox privileges when necessary, but add more time with the family doing something fun. Remember: The main problem is he inwardly believes he can’t decode life. This is why many kids will drop the helplessness and do well at rock climbing or whitewater kayaking or golf. They know the rules, and they believe they have control over what happens. Make your rules at home believable, and build on the areas and experiences where your child feels confident. Find one area, then add one more, then one more. Slowly, your child’s confidence and abilities will find their way into other areas of his or her life.