Helplessness and Hope

I think one of the reasons that the book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and your Life, resonates so much with me (other than it's just a really interesting book), is that it has confirmed and given understanding to something I had noticed in H. from the very beginning. That something would be that helpless (perceived or actual) causes passivity.

I will admit that H.'s passivity at the beginning is one of the things that made it difficult for me to attach. I found it very difficult to understand and love and help a child who exhibited such extreme passivity in the face of any type of decision making decision, much less a small setback. It was frustrating. Very frustrating. (If you know my family, you know that passive is just not an adverb which would be used as a descriptor for us.)

I had a sneaking suspicion that it was a learned behavior. After too many years of having no control, of assumed incapability on the part of others, she gave up, not unlike the phenomenon of orphanages filled with silent babies. Crying didn't cause their needs to be met, so they gave up. I was pretty sure that helplessness could be learned, but had no real proof.

No real proof until I started reading the Learned Optimism book, that is. Imagine my excitement when one of the first things I read concerned the author's experiments on learned helplessness. To condense a long and complex chapter into a few sentences, essentially he discovered that animals could be taught to be helpless by putting them in an environment in which they had no control. Once the animals learned to be helpless they were passive to whatever bad thing came their way. Why fight it? It's going to happen anyway. (The results were replicated in humans as well.) I felt as though I was reading about my daughter as I worked my way through the descriptions of the experiments and the results. It was both heartbreaking and hopeful. Hopeful because the researchers also discovered that the helplessness could be unlearned, and once unlearned the animal or human was not prone to it again. Hope is probably one of the most beautiful words in the English language.

On some level, I already knew this. Over the past two years we have seen the extreme passiveness abate a little. Every time we allow H. to affect her environment, to have some control over what happens to her, we erase a little bit more of the helplessness that was so ingrained. It is a long process. Something that took years to create will not be undone quickly. While H. now knows that she can have opinions... she can like things or not like them, she can have feelings and express them, she can do things without having to ask permission first, there is still a large area that needs work. When faced with a problem (or any degree), she instantly reverts back to passivity. It just doesn't occur to her that she has any power to figure out a way to solve it. You can see the passivity kick-in. It is immediate and pervasive.

Armed with my new information, I am slowly starting to help H. with this. And let me tell you, it is one of those ultimately good parenting things that feel really horrible at the time. Recently, whenever H. has been faced with a manageable problem, I have been letting her figure out a solution. I am supportive, but I have not been giving her the answer. Let's just say, H. is not enjoying the process... nor have I. On the face of it, it just seems cruel. I can easily solve her problem, and it is difficult to watch her stretch herself to try to solve the difficulty herself. It feels a little as though I'm a physical therapist asking a recovering stroke victim to regain use of a limb. It is painful and slow. I feel like a rotten mother for allowing... insisting... on her doing these things for herself. Yet, there is hope.

Yesterday, we had two instances of this. It took a while each time, but each time she solved the difficulty herself, without any help from me. I offered her encouragement and pointed out that she was smart and could figure this out on her own, but that was all I did. She did the rest and figured it out. By the end, it hardly mattered to any of us that the solution happened, because we were both excited that she had figured out the solution.

It feels huge, but boy, this parenting-thing isn't for wimps.


Owlhaven said…
So true. Trying to exercise some mental muscles of one of mine as she fills out job applications. I wont be there to help her on the job so am trying to give her problem-solving practice while filling out applications too. So hard to step back when you know you could be helping. Except that's not always what helps them grow.
Ann said…
Could you give us an example of the type of problems you're letting H. solve on her own? I understand privacy concerns, but your post is a little too general to convey a real sense of her accomplishment.

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