Learned Helplessness

The notion of Learned Helplessness is extremely interesting to me at the moment.
Perhaps because I have been confronted with it in some form, and have had to really reflect on what it means for my child with a disability.

So what is it?
There are many different thoughts about it, and you can click on the link above to read a summary for yourself, but essentially, the idea is that people will only try at something for so long before they give up and just accept that this the way you do things, so therefore don't seek to learn that task.

'Learned helplessness' refers to 'the feeling that no amount of effort can lead to success' (Eggen & Kauchak, 1999, p. 412).

People may feel powerless and ineffective in certain circumstances. If this feeling is generalised to new circumstances, then people may exhibit learned helplessness (McInerney & McInerney, 1998). Learned helplessness leads to shame and self-doubt, with the eventual result that people give up without even trying. Repeated failure at a task can lead to learned helplessness. One solution is to design environments that provide people with opportunities for success. Another solution is to explicitly instruct people about the causes of success and failure. Effort and persistence, rather than natural ability, is an important determinant of success.

Reference Here

My example:
At a recent appointment with the Continence nurse for our yearly review (so we can get some funding for nappies), she questioned me about Ryley and what my long term goals were in terms of toileting.
I replied, as I usually do, that I don't ever expect him to be out of nappies.
Wrong answer Anna.

I was grilled.
Well, to be fair, it wasn't really a grilling, it was more about my thoughts being challenged, and rightly so.

We went through where Ryley was at in terms of his awareness, and I explained.
And even as I heard the words coming out of my mouth and the nurses excited eyes as she nodded her head, I knew, that I had been missing some of the vital awareness signs.

*Lightbulb moment*

What the nurse gently pointed out to me, was that all the signs were there for Ryley that we could actually start to have some real successes with toileting if we were prepared to give it a go.
Because (and here is where the learned helplessness part comes in), Ryley has learnt to just use his nappies instead of learning to go to the toilet.

Holy McCrackens.

Suddenly I am looking at things differently again with Ryley.
I need to be doing more.
Does he sometimes give up because he knows someone else will do it for him (well, yes, I know that is true).


Time to get a degree in Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology and Physiotherapy.

What are other's experiences? Is this 'learned helplessness' a thing designed to make us all feel even more guilty? Is it always such a bad thing?


  1. Oy. I've agonized over this for more than fifteen years. I don't have any answers, yet. I think it's ultimately about balance, about not killing yourself over every little thing, about surviving for the long haul.

    1. I agree with you about it being about balance and survival. It takes so much longer for our kids to learn, sometimes you just become burnt out trying to achieve one thing!

  2. I have found that children often *absorb* information, hide what they know from us until faced with a situation in which they have no choice but to show us. Give them the tools to accomplish a goal, and never underestimate their ability to learn. :-) I call Samantha a "stealth learner." With regards to toiletting, for example, we were too afraid of mess to just let go and let her learn. Finally she began to call the shots. We allowed for mistakes to happen, and she then decided enough was enough, and she decided, when *she* was ready, to be fully toilet trained. Good luck!!

    1. You make a great point about allowing our kids to decide when they are ready. I do think Ryley is well and truly ready in his own mind. But his body is not quite keeping up yet. Which frustrates the hell out him. I guess we have to just keep on trying!

  3. Not a big fan of the "learned helplessness" concept. Many, many years ago I felt for a brief period of time that we foster lack of "change" in Adam, even talked about it. I found the concept was not useful, as he was doing his best and we were doing our best. Feeling comfortable in one's body and situation and accepting disability and all that it entails is not a learned helplessness. Taking care of those we love is not enabling helplessness; it just may appear to be to those observing from the outside who do not have a clue....just both doing our best!

    1. I am not a huge fan of the concept either to be honest. Something about it doesn't seem right, yet I not sure how else to describe it. I think for us it makes us feel like we aren't doing our best and that we should be doing more. Yet it also makes me feel guilty when I don't have the energy. I think I will post a part 2 to this post.

  4. Our kids are going to give us an indication if they're capable of moving onto the next step. Just like a toddler can eventually show that they are willing to use a potty or toilet - some of our kids will progress to that point. My daughter Chantel requires assistance with dressing and toileting. She started using the toilet when she was about 5 but night time nappies continued until she was 12. Then she reached a point where she no longer wanted to wear them and started taking them off. There were a few accidents but with lots of encouragement and praise it became normal practice. She hasn't worn a nappy for 11 years. It can happen for some of our kids. If their understanding enables them to make a choice it can work. Also if they are physically capable of following it through. My son Royce may wish he didn't have to wear nappies but he isn't able to use a toilet. So he's a whole different kettle of fish. I think the key is to not rush them and let them show signs that they are interested in attempting these new challenges.

    1. Thankyou for sharing your story Marcelle. I think I sometimes miss the signs Ryley is showing, because it is easier to just do what we are currently doing. We have tried with toileting so so many times over the years that sometimes it is far easier for us all to just continue with nappies. But I guess then I am grappling with the whole notion that maybe I am preventing him somehow from taking the next step.
      Too much thinking time on my hands when I should be sleeping I think!!

  5. I believe you can have "learned helplessness..." because I do believe that if someone does something for you all the time - you will learn that it can be done for you. HOweVER.... I think people should remember that we, as parents, are battling our own demons of what we have been told since birth. How hard to push. How much to hope. **sigh** Sometimes outsiders can "gently" tell us how we are holding our children back - don't realize how far we have pushed them since birth. Love to you - amazing woman.


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