Finding the ‘Ability’ in Disability:

Help Your Child Avoid the Snare of ‘Learned Helplessness’

By Jeanne Riether

Raising a child with disabilities can be a challenging task, not only physically but emotionally. When a child realizes he faces circumstances that set him apart from others, his attitude towards his lot in life will largely determine the degree of happiness and success he achieves. While there are many things a child with a disability cannot do, there are countless things your child can and must be encouraged to do, and the earlier he learns to major on what he can accomplish, rather than on what he can’t, the happier and more fulfilled he will be.

How can you counteract the frustration and discouragement your youngster feels at being different from the rest? How can you help him learn problem solving skills that will insulate him from the temptation to give up in defeat when physical, intellectual or social obstacles block his way? One way is to avoid falling into the trap of ‘learned helplessness’ as you raise him at home.

What is learned helplessness?  A simple definition would be that it is the automatic assumption that you can’t do something when you actually can. However, learned helplessness is also a technical term used in psychology for a condition in which people learn to behave helplessly through behavioral and social conditioning, though they possess the ability to avoid or change unpleasant or harmful circumstances.

How does a child adopt a mindset of learned helplessness? While no one would intentionally teach a child to develop such an attitude, it is nevertheless an easy snare to fall into when raising a child with a disability. If he is surrounded by eager and loving hands who constantly try to make life as painless as possible for him, you may unintentionally stifle his drive for independence and rob him of the opportunity to cultivate self-worth. If you fear he already has enough to contend with in life, and try to relieve him of the burden of struggling with tasks that you can do for him in faster, better or neater ways, you may be unintentionally doing him more harm than good.

Children with disabilities typically experience a great deal of frustration when confronted with challenging tasks. Your attitude as a parent can, however, make a huge difference in teaching him to rise to the challenge. There is a delicate balance between knowing when not to abandon a despairing child to fend for himself, and knowing when it is necessary to let him struggle through until he experiences the thrill of accomplishment and self-reliance. This is what elevates good parenting to an art form rather than a black and white set of rules and instructions. It is the essence of love to give your child what he needs, when he needs it. Sometimes, however, figuring out just what he needs at the time can be a mind boggling task.

So what can you do? A wise parent watches, observes, and learns to understand their child. Without this understanding, it is difficult to know just when to step in and when to step back. Parenting skills are honed through trial and error, the same way your child develops his own life skills. You can learn to sense when your child needs to you to intervene. Praise and encouragement are powerful motivational tools that you can utilize when his inspiration is lagging. However, it is not your job to shield and protect him from all of life’s struggles and it will only harm him if you attempt to do so. Your child needs to experience the frustration of trial and error, for this is how he learns that he has control over himself and his environment.

When people perceive life to be uncontrollable and unpredictable, they generally lose hope that what they do or don’t do matters. Children who adopt such attitudes of learned helplessness typically struggle academically, are unmotivated to perform physical tasks that require problem solving skills, and are at risk of depression and social anxiety. With such an attitude, a child is beaten before he begins.

Your child’s disability is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has handed him a heavy burden to carry in life, but on the other it has given him a chance to excel in ways few people are privileged to know. His unique life circumstances offer an unparalleled opportunity to develop independence, character and courage. He cannot be pushed into self-reliance, and his training must be tempered with compassion and understanding of his abilities and fears. He needs a cheerleader, not a slave driver.  But if you realize that your child is one of the gifted few who can learn first-hand that obstacles can be turned into opportunities if he is willing to embrace the challenge, you will release your child from a self-imposed cage of defeat.

From the earliest age, all children can be taught social and emotional skills that will foster positive attitudes towards self-care and problem solving. The following excerpts on the importance of teaching children self-care skills are from our book, ‘Foundations for Excellence’: A Rainbow of Social and Emotional Skills From Birth to Three” (Riether and de Gaalon)

Foundations for Excellence

“There is a folk-tale about a rich and mighty emperor who once lived in great splendor, attended by many servants. When his kingdom was besieged by enemies, however, all his servants fled in fear. The helpless monarch, who had never before dressed himself, could not escape. He was captured by his adversaries, who found him naked in his chambers, struggling with the laces of his shoes.

“Unlike the hapless emperor, most children are eager to become independent at a young age and love to learn skills that will help them achieve that goal. Children learn to master their environment by practicing newly discovered skills for independence. Your child derives great satisfaction from discovering how to care for himself and his things. Learning self-care and practical life skills instills him with a sense of order, respect and value for himself and others. He should not be pushed into independence, but neither should he be held back when he shows a desire to explore and learn.

“Most home environments are set up in ways that make it difficult for children to become independent easily. A child who is not provided with opportunities to practice and master skills for independence tends to adopt a passive role towards life. He becomes a spectator, rather than an active participant. He learns to expect to be waited on by adults, because that is the role they have always assumed in his life. When bored, he expects others to entertain him, because he is unsure of how to occupy himself. He may become demanding and whiney when others are not constantly at his beck and call, because he doesn’t know how to help himself.

“When a child senses that others perceive him as helpless and incapable, he tends to believe them. If he doubts his ability to learn new skills, he learns to be dependent on others. This type of ‘learned helplessness’ can cause him to wait on others to do things for him rather than risk making a mistake by doing it himself. The mindset of helplessness can extinguish confidence and curiosity, and render him incapable, even though he has the ability to learn.  He assumes he is unable and, in the words of inventor Henry Ford, “Whether you think that you can or you can’t, you are usually right.”

“No parent would purposely teach their child to feel helpless, but it can happen unintentionally for a number of reasons.  A newborn is totally dependent on adult care, and sometimes parents automatically continue in that role much longer than necessary. Some mistakenly feel sad or guilty about encouraging their child towards independence. The physical care they provide for him is an expression of their love and devotion, and they are reluctant to see that phase of childhood end. Other busy parents simply dread the extra work of cleaning up after a child who attempts to feed, dress or wash himself, so they discourage him from trying.

“Whatever the reason, being too quick to do things for your child is not helping him. Though parental roles must change as children grow, children need their parents to guide and coach them. Providing your child with opportunities to learn self-care and practical life skills will ignite a fire of curiosity in his young mind, and lead him down the path of independence.

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