We’ve all heard the adage “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Sounds like good advice, but not everybody takes it. Some people quietly resign themselves to a life of lemons. Why is this? One reason may be “learned helplessness”.
The term “learned helplessness” was coined by psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his research, Seligman discovered that people who are repeatedly put into a situation where their efforts to remedy a problem are ineffective, will become passive and behave as if they are helpless if exposed to that situation again. This is true even if in later trials, the person has the power to alter the situation. It is believed that learned helplessness developed in childhood can become an enduring coping style into adulthood. Adults with a passive coping style have higher rates of depression, lower job satisfaction and weakened immune systems (poorer health). If we could prevent learned helplessness in children, it would be well worth the effort. One way to guard against learned helplessness in children may be to foster proactive behavior.
Fostering Proactive Behavior in Children
1. Address Negative Statements about the Self
Seligman found that persons with a passive coping style often attribute negative events or failures to some internal quality about themselves. For instance, a boy might attribute a poor grade on a test to his being “stupid” rather than to the test’s difficulty or lack of preparation. If the boy believes he is simply stupid, why should he try to do better in the future? When your child meets with failure, it is an opportunity to understand how he interprets failure. If he attributes it to some flaw in himself, challenge him to think of alternative explanations. Provide evidence that his global statement about himself is false.
2. Encourage Proactive Behaviors During Times of Adversity
First ask the child to identify a problem. Maybe he isn’t making friends in his new school. Maybe he failed to make the basketball team. Ask the child to make a list of things he could do to improve the situation. Ask him to list everything he can think of, from the outlandish to the conservative. If he has trouble generating ideas at first, feel free to help him. Make it playful. Once you have a considerable list, ask the child to pick a few things from the list which he is willing to do to help his situation. Give the child credit for performing the behavior (not the outcome). Some of his initiatives will be successful, others won’t. He will learn two things from this: he can do things to impact his world for the better, and if his initiatives don’t bring the desired result, he can try something else. He will also discover that it feels good to take action.
3. Set Personal Goals
One way for a child to learn that he can positively impact his life is to set goals and then work to attain those goals. Have the child identify a few goals. On a note card, help him identify steps he can take toward achievement of his goal. When the child accomplishes a step, check it off the list. This way the child can visualize the progress he is making toward his goal. When the child faces an unanticipated obstacle, use another note card and devote it to overcoming the obstacle.
4. Practice Helping Others
Get your child involved in a volunteer activity in which he helps others. Helping others is proactive; it is doing something to improve world. Not only are altruistic acts empowering, but they also bolster self esteem and give one a sense of connectedness to the larger world.
5. Challenge Negative Thinking
Negative thinking undermines motivation and initiative; it promotes a sense of hopelessness and, in effect, helplessness. When your child is confronted with a new situation, does he look forward to new experiences or does he believe it will be disappointing? Look for the absolutes in your child’s speech, words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “no one”. For example, a child going to a new school might say “I’ll never make friends. Everyone already has friends.” When you hear statements like this, be sure to challenge them. A counterargument to the above statement might go something like this, rephrased appropriately for the child:
It is true it will take time to make friends at a new school. But even if most kids have friends, it doesn’t mean they are not open to making new friends. Also, it is unlikely that everyone has friends as you say. There are probably some kids who don’t have many friends and would love to make a new friend. Furthermore, you have always had at least one friend since you were little. Based on your history, I think it is highly unlikely that you will never make another friend.
As children get older, encourage them to come up with their own counterarguments for negative thinking.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by