What Learned Helplessness Looks Like in Children

Girl holding head, leaning on elbows next to man, rear view
Sigrid Olsson / Getty Images

Learned helplessness is that state when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action or initiative on the animal's part.

While this concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings. When people feel they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change. And children are not immune?

Learned Helplessness in Children

Learned helplessness can begin very early in life, even at the infant stage. Institutionalized infants , as well as those suffering from maternal deprivation or inadequate mothering, are especially at risk for learned helplessness due to the lack of adult responses to their actions. It is also possible for mothers who feel helpless to pass this quality on to their children.

Learned helplessness can lead to both anxiety and/or depression. Your child may develop the expectation that future events will be as uncontrollable as past ones. Essentially, your child may feel that there is nothing he can do to change the outcome of an event, so he tells himself 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 he has no control over his performance, so he might decide to give up participating and studying altogether. He may then generalize these feelings to other aspects of his life and lose the motivation to succeed, as he believes that his success is out of his control.

Symptoms of learned helplessness may include:

Hope for Relief From 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

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.

There are some mental health practitioners who believe that it is possible to replace learned helplessness with "learned optimism" using cognitive therapy techniques.

Other possible techniques include teaching your child to dispute their own negative thoughts and promoting their problem-solving and social skills. Here are a few helpful parent scripts to consider:

  • "It seems like you feel discouraged by doing poorly on your test after all the studying."
  • "It can feel overwhelming when you are a good friend to others and they don't return the favor back to you."
  • "You feel down and lonely by things not working out for you. How can we figure this out together?"
  • "You want to give up or put off tasks when things are too hard. That makes sense to me. I'm here for you and can help you when you need it."
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • 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.

By Lauren DiMaria
Lauren DiMaria is a member of the Society of Clinical Research Associates and childhood psychology expert.