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Learned Helplessness in Children

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Updated October 03, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Learned helplessness, a phenomena first observed in animals, suggests that when people feel that important aspects of their lives are out of their control, they may experience symptoms of depression.

What Does Learned Helplessness Look Like in Children?

Learned helplessness describes the behavior that follows when uncontrollable events lead to the expectation that future events will also be uncontrollable. Essentially, the child feels like there is nothing he can do change the outcome of an event, so he might as well not even try.

For example, if a child studies for an exam and still receives a poor grade, he may feel that he has no control over his performance, so he decides to give up participating and studying all together. He may then generalize these feelings to other aspects of his life and lose motivation to succeed, as he believes that his success is out of his control.

Symptoms of learned helplessness may include:

  • Passivity
  • Giving up
  • Procrastination
  • Decreased problem-solving ability
  • Frustration
  • Low self-esteem

Hope for Feeling Helpless

In one study of simulated learned helplessness, participants who received a therapeutic intervention following an unsolvable task were more likely to be successful at completing a similar follow-up task than the group who did not receive the therapeutic intervention.

The researchers suggested that the therapeutic intervention helped provide participants with enough positive feedback about their initial performance to temporarily reverse the negative effects of learned helplessness on a second trial.

Getting Help for Learned Helplessness

It is important to know that not all children react to uncontrollable events with learned helplessness or depression. Certain biological and psychological factors may increase a child's likelihood of experiencing learned helplessness and/or depression.

If you think that your child may be depressed, or is showing signs of learned helplessness for more than a few weeks, it is best to have him evaluated by a professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Sources:

Donald S. Hiroto and Martin E.P. Seligman. Generality of Learned Helplessness in Man. The Journal of Social Psychology. 1975. 31(2): 311-327.

Jonathon D. Brown. The Self. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

Zeynep Cemalcilar, Resit Canbeyli, Diane Sunar. Learned Helplessness, Therapy and Personality Traits: An Experimental Study. Journal of Social Psychology. 2003; 143(1): 65-81.

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