“No, Thank You. I can do it”: Preventing Learned Helplessness

Imagine you are shopping for groceries, safely crossing a street, playing with your child at the park, utilizing an elevator, or completing a routine job task. You’re accomplishing what you have successfully accomplished for so many days and years. Your arm is clutched by a well-meaning individual wanting to “rescue” you, or you hear, “I’ve got it” as someone attempts to assist you. Imagine, too, this is a regular occurrence. One of two things will likely occur: 1) You may be frustrated! This is a pretty typical response for confident adults. 2) You may begin to think you can’t perform the task without help, and you would come to expect or rely on assistance. This is a pretty typical response for children, one we call learned helplessness.

So, what measures can be taken to help prevent learned helplessness?

Set high expectations.

To set realistic, achievable goals, it is suggested to work on one goal at a time with your child. In other words, expect your child to accomplish what they can already execute independently and always be working on the next goal.

Give your child the opportunity to help others.

Because all children, and especially children with disabilities, will need help or assistance regularly (until they have mastered daily living skills, orientation and mobility skills, etc.), it is important that they have regular opportunities to assist others. They will learn that relationships are reciprocal and that they are capable of helping others.

Teach your child to steward the earth well, volunteer with your child, and allow them to help run the household by taking responsibility for age/developmentally-appropriate chores.

Ensure your child’s home and learning environments are accessible.

Suppose you and your child work together to organize the environment and label what is difficult to identify or discriminate. In that case, your child will be set up to access what is needed for daily living and learning independently.

Teach your child to decline help when they don’t need it.

Some children seem to be born saying, “No! Me do it!”, while others are content to be taken care of perpetually. Either way, you can teach your child to decline assistance respectfully. The key is helping a more passive child gain confidence by giving them a phrase to say, such as “No, thank you. I can do it.” and reminding them when they can use it. You can teach a more “aggressive” communicator to replace an existing phrase with the more polite “No, thank you. I can do it.”

Set high expectations. Give your child the opportunity to help others. Ensure your child’s home and learning environments are accessible. Teach your child to decline help when they don’t need it. With effort and intentionality on your and your child’s part, your son or daughter can gain control, competence, autonomy, and the awareness that they are capable. Your child is not helpless!

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