Teaching Kids How to Overcome Helplessness

Teaching Kids How to Overcome Helplessness


Kids (like adults) have a lot on their plates today. Make a point to regularly unplug, take breaks and spend time together without digital distractions.(iStockphoto)

Children and teens of Generation Z are growing up in a world where global connectivity and continuous access to technology have shaped every aspect of their lives.

Their unprecedented accessibility is a double-edged sword; it offers them a way to connect with their world with just the click of a button, but it also exposes them to a barrage of benchmarks for success. Between tallies of Instagram followers, YouTube celebrities, Snapchat streaks and overall growing academic pressure, kids know how they measure up to those around them as they strive to make their mark on the world. In the past, kids compared themselves to those in their immediate environment – generating passions and growing their strengths within these smaller systems. Today, it’s a much different story. There’s constant pressure to achieve and be successful on a global scale. When the world is your oyster, the pressure is on to yield a pearl.

The fear of failure has stopped many members of this generation from trying new things, working toward goals and utilizing their strengths. The theory of learned helplessness, introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman, may be more at play than ever before. The theory hypothesizes that individuals learn helplessness by repeatedly feeling out of control of their lives. When applied to children and teens, the belief that they can’t impact their own lives in the ways they want results in little motivation to even try. Persistent helplessness and hopelessness can greatly impact mental health and lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.

However, as parents of this new generation, there are ways we can help our kids push through helpless feelings and gain a sense of control over themselves and their futures.

Take a break. Kids are bombarded with stimulation, from social media and YouTube to video games and television. In addition, they can be overscheduled with activities, sports practices and hours of homework. It is important to build in breaks each day in order to give them the opportunity to quiet the body and mind. This can be as simple as taking five minutes to sit and breathe, listen to music or take a mindful walk. Parents can help by encouraging kids to take breaks and doing so as well with their kids.

Talk about the filter. Accomplishments and successes are often displayed in our world without mention of the work and commitment that was necessary to achieve them, not to mention any failed attempts. While social media allows us to share the positives in our lives, it creates the illusion that the lives of the people around us are without hardship and struggle. It can be beneficial to have an open, nonjudgmental and ongoing conversation about this filtered truth so that your child can learn to challenge any thoughts that others are living perfect lives.

Focus on the positive. It’s important for kids to take stock of the positive experiences they have and the positive emotions they feel throughout the day. But while the urge as a parent is to list all the things your child should be appreciating, this does little to help children internalize such gratitude. Instead, try focusing on the positive in your own life in front of your child. Acknowledge the good parts of your day – having coffee with a friend, an achievement at work, a trip to the gym – and then ask your child about positive aspects of his or her day. It’s also important to build in positive experiences throughout the day as a buffer to stress and disappointment. Help your child make time for a play date with a friend, pick a favorite snack to have handy during a potentially challenging week at school, or sign up for a 5K or yoga class together.

Take small steps toward success. Whether it be the fear of failing, not knowing where to start or wanting to do something else with their time, it can be hard for kids to complete complex tasks and reach their goals. Supporting your children while they push through long, difficult undertakings is one of the best ways to set them up for future life success. Parents can do two important things in this regard: Focus on effort, not outcome; and help your child break down tasks into manageable steps. Whether the goal is to become a professional musician and they need help fitting daily practice into the week, or their aim is to pass history class and they need help with structured study time, parents can guide kids as they take those first small steps toward bigger goals.

Keep commitments. If a child or teen is feeling helpless about her ability to succeed or push through difficulties, letting her quit might provide temporary relief from her frustration or anxiety, but it also confirms what she thought – she cannot succeed. The best way to build grit, resilience and flexible problem-solving skills is to make sure your children complete commitments that they’ve made. While allowing your child to quit soccer after the first few practices will bring peace to your household, completing the season will prove to him that he can endure uncomfortable, frustrating or boring activities, which is great practice for his future.

Kids are growing up in a rapidly changing world full of opportunities and resources. Meanwhile this world makes it easy to feel left behind while you watch others thrive. But by working together to build small successes in the face of struggles, parents can nurture a solid foundation and a more nuanced perspective, and set their children up to reach their big goals.

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Stephanie Samar, Contributor

Stephanie Samar, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind…  Read moreStephanie Samar, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. She specializes in providing evidence-based assessments and treatments for tweens and teens with high-risk problem behaviors and mood disorders. She has particular interest and experience in using dialectical behavior therapy to treat these issues.

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