Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

Clearly, not all children and young people are the same; personality and values can shape behaviour so that some people will persist more, even in the face of initial failure.

Most people need to believe they can achieve a task before investing time and energy into the task.

In this video, some high school students were made to feel helpless because their classmates could do the task and they struggled. All students were given the same word for the third task but by that stage, the ones that had been given the impossible words the first two times had given up.

They didn’t believe they could do the task.

Learned helplessness undermines resilience. Resilience is usually defined as the ability to ‘bounce back’ after experiencing some difficulty. Learned helplessness is when we readily give up after encountering difficulties.

We can help our children avoid learned helplessness by giving them opportunities to undertake challenges and deal with occasional failure.

Part of building resilience is allowing children to have a go at age appropriate tasks. Parents need to be sure they don’t focus on failure but acknowledge effort and note partial successes. Attempting tasks that have age-appropriate risks is also a way to build children’s confidence and their belief that they can deal with the bigger world.

For instance, children of about age 10 can be sent to a neighbourhood shop to buy bread and milk. Obviously, children would build up to this level of independence by shopping with Mum or Dad, helping locate certain items in the shop, talking to the shop assistant, and so on. Parents would need to be confident that their children had well-developed road sense and were responsible enough to go straight there and back.

New York columnist, Lenore Skenazy, provoked outrage when she wrote about allowing her nine year old son to take the subway home by himself. She believed that she had taught him what to do, how to solve any problems and, moreover, he wanted to try it. She believed it was a normal part of their life and something he was capable of doing. And he did manage to get home safely by himself!

Parents sometimes have to recognise that their own fears might be preventing their children from engaging in age appropriate activities or tasks. If we want our kids to be willing to try new things and to persist when they experience difficulties, we need to encourage effort, build confidence and convince our kids that ’if at first they don’t succeed to try and try again’.

– Simone Wallington (B.A. Grad Dip Ed)

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