Our daughter never does anything without first saying, “You help me!” What can we do?
Some children display what has been called “learned helplessness,” perhaps the case with your child. Any child whose first reaction is “you help me” is not feeling at all self-sufficient. Ironically, your daughter appears to be very adept at getting adult help, a sign of considerable interpersonal skill, but since she may not recognize it, it is unlikely to improve her own confidence. Your task, then, is to help your child become – and feel – self-sufficient.
When your daughter was age two or so, she likely reacted to your attempts to help her by announcing, “I can do it myself!” Sometimes busy and impatient parents habitually take over tasks that children can do themselves, or they otherwise convey the message that their children are incapable. Whatever may have influenced your daughter’s development, she now needs to learn that she is quite capable of doing what you expect of her. Children learn to feel capable by observing themselves successfully complete tasks, a fact that you can rely on as you focus your program on your child’s needs.
Clearly and carefully define expectations that you know your child can fulfill a third or more of the time. Given the nature of your concerns, include in each item a phrase such as, “on your own.” For example:
Melinda, you are successful when you have all your toys in the family room picked up on your own by 7:00 p.m.
Once you are confident that your expectations are realistic, the next step is to assure that the incentives you have established are adequate and well focused. Make sure your child can rapidly earn enough credits to trade for meaningful rewards, particularly early in the program. Since it appears that for some reason your daughter needs to stay close to you, consider reward choices of special activities with you. Having access to some relatively easy successes will assure she can independently succeed on assigned tasks and earn enough credits to trade for time with you, meeting that need through more independent acts. Working this out will take some of your time, but once you guide your child out of this helpless stance, you may well find that you have actually freed up more of your own time than the program requires.
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There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One of these is roots; the other wings.
~Hodding Carter, Jr.
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Your role is to define the target behaviors and to provide the reinforcement. You must avoid directly helping with any task; otherwise you will defeat your immediate and long-term goals. What you can do instead is talk about the way the program will work in your home, emphasizing the great rewards that the child can achieve. With these factors all in place and working for your family, you can anticipate that your child will be on her way to mastery of life’s challenges rather than to continued helplessness.