Does Your Child Struggle with Helplessness

Is your child struggling with helplessness? Learn how to respond and encourage independence!

You’re cleaning up after the chaos of the morning routine when you notice a bright yellow piece of paper on the table.

Your son’s permission slip.

He can’t go on the field trip without it.

Grabbing your keys, you freeze – second-guessing your next move.


If I bring this to school, he’ll never learn to be responsible. He will probably stop bringing anything to school, assuming that I’ll pick up the slack for him. I’ll be running things to school every day, and there’s no way I have time for that, I’m already doing so much for these kids, I can’t be held responsible for missing homework and forgotten permission slips.

(Or something like that, right?)

Plus, depending on the school, you may be given a “talking to” from the office staff, reminding you that it’s your “child’s responsibility.”

Who needs that extra guilt?

BUT, if you don’t bring it, he’ll miss out on the field trip.

Why is everything in parenting so complicated?

Learned Helplessness

Most parents don’t set out to create helpless children.

It happens accidentally.

You tie your preschooler’s shoe because it’s faster. You clean the playroom because it doesn’t get clean otherwise. You make their lunches because there’s less mess.

Over time, your kids start to rely on you to do almost everything for them. Even things they are more than capable of doing themselves.

You feel exhausted and burned out from fulfilling your child’s every demand.

Some people call this “Learned Helplessness.”

Unfortunately, when parents assume that their child is struggling with learned helplessness, they back off. Shut down. Pull back. Remove all supports.

Which results in a discouraged, frustrated and disconnected child. 

Not exactly our goal.

Helping Kids Learn

Let’s consider this from a different perspective:

What if, instead of doing everything for your child or leaving them stranded, you met them where they are. You took their unique developmental stage and abilities into account. And, you supported and encouraged them as they took steps toward independence at their own pace?

Can you imagine that from your child’s perspective?

How encouraging!

So, instead of seeing our kids as helplessly relying on us to fulfill their every desire, let’s see how we can step in to support them and walk with them to independence.

Is your child struggling with helplessness? Learn how to respond and encourage independence!

Tips to support your child’s independence:

  • Take Development into Account: Resist the temptation to compare your child with their peers. Just because other children can do a skill without support, doesn’t mean your child should be left to struggle. Give each child time to mature and develop at their own pace.
  • Focus on Connection: Actively work to build a strong relationship with your child. Get into their world, ask questions, spend time together. Creating a strong foundation helps your child feel safe, knowing that you will support them in difficult situations, and encourage independence when they’re ready.
  • Put this Into Perspective: Forgetting a homework assignment or needing help with a zipper periodically is not cause to panic. These rare occurrences are opportunities to show love to your kids when they are struggling. If it is a pattern or an ongoing challenge, it may be a sign that your child needs more help to be successful.
  • Emphasize with the Struggle: Sometimes, you will not be able to intervene. In these moments, let your child know that you understand how they are feeling. Put yourself in their shoes and put their experience into words, “It’s hard when I can’t leave work to bring your permission slip. I know that is frustrating.”
  • Focus on Problem Solving: If your child is struggling on a consistent basis, even with your support, sit down and brainstorm solutions together. Talk about the challenges, identify things that may help, skills that need to be taught, and create a plan to decrease the frustration.
  • Back Off Willingly: It’s a bittersweet experience when your child decides they are ready to be independent. Some parents have trouble stepping out of the caretaking role, feeling worried or uncertain about their new role. Take a deep breath. Smile and watch your child glow with pride.

When your child doesn’t want to be independent

There may be times when your child would rather have you do something for them.

It’s human nature.

Wouldn’t you rather have someone else pay the bills and shop for the groceries?

It’s also normal for kids to waver between child-like dependence and adult-like maturity. Independence can be fun and exciting, and it can be a burden with an emotional toll.

Kids are wired to depend on their caregivers.

Be willing to connect in these “helpless” moments.

Offer support.



Or, set a boundary.

Go ahead, grab your keys. Drop off the permission slip at school.

There will be other opportunities to teach independence, responsibility, and organization.

Nicole Schwarz (couch 3)

Welcome! I'm Nicole Schwarz.

I'm a Parent Coach, Licensed Therapist and Author of It Starts with You. I help stressed, overwhelmed, confused parents find calm, confidence and connection with their kids. No one is expecting perfection here. But, if you’re willing to examine your parenting, find encouragement, or try something new, this is the place for you.

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