Learned helplessness refers to our belief that our actions are not directly affecting an outcome. “What I do doesn’t matter, so why bother.” This pattern of thinking leads to anxiety, hopelessness, feeling out of control and even depression. One helpful way to address this issue is to encourage self-efficacy. Essentially, self-efficacy is the belief that we can’t control everything in our environment, but we can control our own actions, motivations and behaviors.
Some ways to combat learned helplessness and teach self-efficacy to children as the trauma of the pandemic persists:
Don’t pity your children. No one who ever truly helped anyone felt sorry for them. Respect their dignity by maintaining high expectations, even though circumstances might be difficult. Having high expectations doesn’t necessarily equal being a drill sergeant; it can look a little more like vocalizing clear expectations but still being a soft place to land.
Provide constancy. Children are currently starving for stability. Divide and organize the day, week, assignments, etc. Try to set consistent wake times and bedtimes, times for work and play, keep mealtimes consistent and maintain a predictable environment. Keep daily, weekly and monthly rhythms similar and lean toward more dependable scheduling that kids can anticipate. Children thrive within a consistent cadence of life.
Identify avenues of connection. Children are currently starving for connection. Move away from screens and plan family time and friend time into the week’s course of events, keeping safety in mind. If you have an adolescent or teen and they used to plan their own social times, your kids might have regressed in their ability to plan their own hangout time with friends, so helping them reach out and plan can help them get over the hump. Thinking that social media will fulfill their social needs is like showing a flower a picture of water and expecting it to drink.
Set small steps for success. This helps reorient and define parameters of what can be controlled and what cannot. In many situations, people use S.M.A.R.T goals as described by the acronym Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timed. These goals help individuals realize small successes when dealing with learned helplessness. Chores are a great way to implement this type of goal setting. Kids who are assigned daily chores are shown to experience higher rates of self-efficacy and perceived control (research also suggests that they help individuals succeed in high-level employment later in life). Lowering responsibilities at home and school is not the answer and is actually harmful to their development.
Believe what children tell you. Listen to what’s going on in their day and care (even if it seems silly or unimportant to you). Their experience might be different, for better or worse, than what you think. If they tell you their favorite time of the day was lunch, talk about lunch, not test scores and math homework. Watch children for signs that they might need to talk to a counselor if their feelings are consistently matched with risky or worrisome behaviors. If they tell you they’re anxious or depressed, sad, lonely or angry, follow through with action.
Kids aren’t the only ones who can be stuck in the pattern of learned helplessness. Many adults are experiencing their own version of this as well, lacking in motivation, fatigued, feeling like they can’t control their environment, and growing anxious and depressed because of it. Approaching the third year of a global pandemic has taught us all about what we can control, and it’s left many of us clinging to stability amid chaos wondering “What can I do? No matter what I try, I can’t succeed.”
The great thing is what works for kids to aid conditions of learned helplessness also can help adults.
Children are sponges at home, in the classroom, on Instagram and elsewhere. They look to the larger world to help them decode the experiences they’re having. If they see educators scrambling for classroom control, parents feeling depressed and unhinged, and administrators cynical upon their return back from winter break, it’s likely they’ll feel like they have little to control and limited power to succeed in their world as well.
Most children will adapt and rise to the challenge of this phase of COVID-19 and beyond, with new hopes and new normals. The adversity and difficulty of the past 24 months in children’s lives should be acknowledged and not denied. We can either let these waves of pandemic capsize us into helplessness, or we can raise the sails and use them to help move us and our children forward, one small step at a time.