What is Learned Helplessness?

For students who have absorbed the message that they’re doomed to fail, instilling realistic optimism can be a game-changer. Educators and therapists have long advocated reframing “failure” positively as a “learning opportunity,” but when failure becomes so pervasive that it causes resignation, learned helplessness isn’t far behind.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that is accompanied by feelings of a loss of control. It paralyzes students from putting forth the effort, even when that effort is within reach and will clearly result in success. When people feel they have lost control over their situation, their behavior reflects this sense of helplessness.

Learned helplessness research has shown that, when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they simply give up and accept their fate. This doesn’t mean that they are unconcerned, rather that they don’t believe anything will help.

The Metaphor

Perhaps the following story explains it best:

One day, a young boy attends the circus. He is mesmerized by the tricks and skills the animals display, especially the elephant, which is able to engage the clowns by standing on two legs.

After the show, the boy just can’t control himself so he heads backstage. He sees a host of animals locked in cages, from monkeys to zebras. But then to his surprise, he sees the elephant, the largest of all the animals, instead of being in a cage, is tied to a tree by a small rope. It’s clear from being slumped over that it is unhappy being tied up.

The boy was certain that even he himself could break the rope to set the elephant free! So he wondered why this huge, powerful and talented elephant didn’t even try. While thinking about this, one of the trainers walked by. “Excuse me, sir,” the boy said. “But why isn’t the elephant moving? Why doesn’t it break away and go free?”

“Ah,” the trainer responded. “While the elephant is still a baby, we tie him to the same tree, using the same rope. As a baby, he’s too small and too weak to escape, despite his efforts. Day after day, he feels that the rope is impossible to break so he experiences his inability to free himself. Eventually, he despairs, believing he’ll never escape. By the time he’s strong enough to break the rope, he doesn’t even try anymore.”

The inability to escape, a form of repeated trauma, taught the elephant helplessness. In the field of self-development, the chained elephant syndrome is a metaphor for the unconscious, limiting beliefs that tie us to our tree, long after we’ve gained the ability to break free. In psychological terms, this is learned helplessness.

Through experimentation with dogs, psychologists J. Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman discovered learned helplessness in 1967. In adapting their findings to humans, they noticed how some people, after exposure to stressful situations that were beyond their control, despaired from trying in the future. Consequently, they remained stuck, even when they had the ability to extricate themselves — just like the elephant.

Learned Helplessness in Children

Infancy

Similar to the baby elephant, we’re most vulnerable when we’re young, and need to be protected. Unreliable or unresponsive caregivers can help to create feelings of helplessness early in childhood. Children raised in institutionalized settings, for example, often present symptoms of helplessness even during infancy.

When children cry for help but no one responds, the feeling that nothing they do will change their situation grows within them. Repeated experiences that reinforce these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can result in growing into adulthood, feeling that there is nothing else that can be done to solve their problems.

A study by Dr. Wendy Middlemiss of the University of North Texas looked at 4-10 month-old babies who were left to cry without any support from a caregiver.

After only three days of neglect, the babies began crying for a shorter period of time. However, their bodies still released the same level of the stress chemical, cortisol, providing evidence that we are vulnerable to learned helplessness even in infancy.

School

But the origins aren’t limited to infancy. Childhood experiences can be the culprit as well. Academic struggles or frustrations in therapy can also lead to feelings of learned helplessness. A child who puts forth the effort, but still does poorly, may end up feeling that she has no control over her grades nor her clinical performance.

Once she believes that nothing will help, there’s no point in continuing to try. And this can easily begin to snowball. Poor performance in school or therapy can make her feel that nothing she does is right or useful, thus undermining her motivation to do practically anything.

Common symptoms of learned helplessness in children include:

  • Refusal to accept help, even if the teacher or therapist repeatedly offers it

  • Easily giving up

  • Stop trying

  • Unmotivated

  • Despair

  • Low self-esteem

  • Passivity

  • Procrastination

Reversing Learned Helplessness

But as bleak as this may seem, there is good news — learned helplessness can be unlearned. The child isn’t doomed. After his research findings, Seligman penned, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.” As he puts it, “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.”

1. Alter the Perspective

An essential key to reversing learned helplessness is changing how you look at the causation of your life events. It’s based on three key pillars.

It’s Not Personal

Who is responsible for the situation? Those afflicted with learned helplessness tend to attribute events to internal causes (“I failed this exam because I’m terrible at math”) rather than external causes (“I failed this exam because I lacked adequate support”).

It’s Not Permanent

How long is the current situation likely to last? Instead of seeing permanence (“I’m bad at public speaking”), it’s best to shift to a temporary outlook (“I wasn’t comfortable during this presentation because I didn’t practice enough”).

It’s Not Pervasive

Is the problem impacting every situation, or specifically one? Global statements (“I don’t like traveling”) foster a fixed mindset, while specific statements (“I didn’t enjoy this particular trip”) suggest the possibility that things can improve in a different context.

2. Celebrate Failures

  1. How do kids explain the failure, and do therapists perpetuate this explanation?

  2. For example, how does a therapist react when a student makes an error?

  3. Does the therapist model how to appropriately respond to failure and share stories of famous people who successfully reframed failure as opportunities to learn and discover, such as Marie Curie and Thomas Edison?

3. Effort not Ability

Carol Dweck is a world-renowned psychologist and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Her research led to her discovering a way to help undo the restraints of learned helplessness. When Dweck encouraged children to view their performance results as a result of effort, rather than ability, their results improved.

Dweck asked, “Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they do believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

The key to reframing away from ability and towards effort is the encouragement to try harder, to work smarter, to give it another shot. And, even if the goal isn’t reached the next time around, eventual success is more likely with that attitude.

Learned Optimism

Learned helplessness is essentially disempowerment. When circumstances feel outside of our control, and we feel resigned, we give away our power to those circumstances.

Like the elephant that grows, clueless that it could easily break the rope, so too many of our beliefs remain fixed across a period of time. They never get updated, nor do they reflect our potential or who we’ve become.

The most potent antidote to learned helplessness is realistic optimism. If children can learn helplessness, they can learn realistic optimism as well. It’s crucial that students (and their therapists) adopt a mindset that fosters hope, gratitude, and resilience!