Learned Helplessness


Learned Helplessness

One of the concepts we talk about frequently with families is “guided participation”, also referred to as the “master-apprentice” relationship that should exist between parents and their children. We want all children to be apprentices to their parents, to actively participate in life activities under the guidance of their parents. As parents we should always be striving for the right balance between supporting our children enough that they can be successful, but not so much that the success is more ours than it is theirs. One of my favorite Dr. Gutstein quote-ables is that we should be teaching our children to be captains of their own ship someday, not training them to be permanent deckhands. The goal is not merely for children to be little helpers to us, but for them to slowly and systematically learn how to think about the world so that they can become the captain of the ship someday!

I recently read an interesting piece about learned helplessness, which is basically what happens when children learn to allow others to do for them rather than becoming competent in doing things for themselves. The author, Chick Moorman, talked about how the words we use with our children can either foster growth and competence or create a sense of helplessness and entitlement. He uses the term “parent talk” to describe language that empowers and builds competence in children rather than creating helpless attitudes and behavior. While his work focuses on children in general, the concepts can certainly be applied to children on the spectrum – and are very compatible with what we work to accomplish through remediation!

Examples of Parent Talk:
“Let me demonstrate for you.”
“I’ll get started an you can do the rest.”
“Sounds like you have a problem. What have you thought of so far?”

Examples of talk that leads to learned helplessness:
“Let me get that for you.”
“It was raining so I put your bike in the garage.”
“It’s late so I’ll let it go this time.”

Take a few moments to consider what message your language is sending. Are you using parent talk that builds competence and encourages responsibility and independence or are your words creating an attitude of helplessness in your children? True apprentices are not helpless, they are constantly learning through your guidance! If you’d like to look at more information on this subject, including an interesting learned helplessness quiz, check out this link:

Until next week,


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