Are You Guilty of Promoting Learned Helplessness?

In the field of special needs and occupational therapy we hear the term, “learned helplessness” a lot.

Learned helplessness happens when parents or caregivers assume that their child can not be successful at something so they help them, because they love them and they care for them and they want life to be easy for them.  And then the child realizes they don’t need to learn it and they will learn that they can be “helpless” in that situation.

It’s a forever balance when your child has special needs because there really are some things that may never be on your child’s radar- he really may never be able to tie his shoes so why push it when there are all kinds of cool adaptations out there like velcro and magnetic closures.

I started thinking about the subject of learned helplessness this past Sunday morning.  I was hosting my sister’s baby shower in my backyard and my husband hadn’t gotten around to mowing the yard the day before because of the gazillion house projects he’s been rocking out.  He works Sundays.  So I asked him for a quick lesson on how to use the ride-on tractor before he left.

And then he left.

And I stood there staring at this ride-on mower like it was my enemy.  I really didn’t want to try to use it and fail.  I also didn’t want my sister to have her baby shower in grass that was up over my ankles.

I got on it.  I mowed the lawn.  And while doing so, I started laughing at myself.  Sometimes I forget that I was a single Mom for many years and during those years I did a lot of things that I now rely on my husband to do (and I like to think this can be reversed for him as well).  I tend to forget that I actually mowed other people’s lawns on the weekends and after my day job to just make ends meet.  I know how to mow a lawn.  I shook my head as I realized I had fallen into a trap of “learned helplessness”.  I had learned to rely, in a pretty short period of time if you look at the entire span of my life, on my husband to do things for me and in the meantime decided that I couldn’t do it.

When we bought a new car this past January I was sad to realize that Brian couldn’t buckle his own seatbelt anymore.  The seat belts were “floppy” instead of standing straight up like they were in my Jeep and he couldn’t seem to figure out the bilateral task to be successful.  I worked on it with him for two weeks and then decided I had to look for adaptations so he could continue to be independent in a skill that he had once mastered.

I found the “My Buckle Mate” on Amazon and ordered it- excited to give him back his independence.



And then, while it was on the back of an UPS truck, he figured out how to use the seat belts in the new car and was independent once again.  Without adaptations.

I just threw this package in my yard sale pile because we don’t need it.

I had assumed that he couldn’t learn that skill and he proved me wrong.  And I’m glad he did.  And I’m glad I proved myself wrong this past Sunday.

When I have clients come in and I see a glimpse of learned helplessness, I can’t judge.  I understand how it happens and I think it’s very easy to fall into that rut.  I also think it comes from a place of love.  I get it, I truly get it, and I understand how one could fall into this trap.  I want to make Brian’s life easier and it’s my job to find him adaptations so he can be as independent as possible.  It’s also my job to believe in him and to continue to push him.  It’s balance.  Like every single aspect of this parenting gig.


Heather Nelson

About Heather Nelson

Heather resides in Rockland where she is busy juggling life as a newlywed, a mom to two boys (one of which who has autism), a part time job in direct sales, and a full-time job as a pediatric occupational therapy assistant. She has a love for live music, karaoke, and cheering on the underdogs.