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Is learned helplessness a result of an expectation of obedience?

(28 Posts)
NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 13:07:53

I had a bit of an epiphany last night - we were talking to DSS about choices - he's really struggling with the responsibility of growing older (he's yr 5) and often displays helpless behaviour or sheer panic when given responsibility for simple personal tasks.

Anyhow, in the course of conversation he revealed that he doesn't have any choices at his mums. We explained that he may not realise it but he had choices every day - whether to get out of bed, whether to get dressed etc etc - and that he chooses to do those things because the consequence of not doing them is something he doesn't want to happen.

It became apparent that he has been taught obedience. He does what he is told by his mum purely because she tells him to. He doesn't display the same obedience to school teachers or activity leaders - and often ignores directions from them, but he really struggles with taking the initiative and coming to a decision for himself as to what to do.

When he was younger, it made for a very compliant child - but now he's older and is expected to walk to school alone, take responsibility for his own belongings etc, it's more of a concern as he freezes and becomes helpless when he faces a situation that he has not received prior instruction/warning about!

Lookingatclouds Mon 24-Sep-12 13:22:52

You might need to be a bit more specific for me to completely get what you're saying. I'm finding that my dd being in Y5 is a huge learning curve for her. She has, however, always had choices. I'll often ask her what she'd like for tea or what she'd like to spend the day doing for example. She's always been a really good girl too, doing as I've asked most of the time - I'm told that when I talk with her there will almost always been an explanation as to why something needs to be done.

I do have an expectation of obedience I suppose, but not in a restrictive way more of a setting reasonable boundaries way. In many ways she is capable, she makes her own lunch, walks to school and to after school club alone but she is struggling to settle into her new school routine and organising her homework and what she needs to take - and I'm just trying to gently guide her.

I suppose what I'm saying is I'm not sure that your dsd sounds very different from my dd, and I wonder if it's just normal for that age, if there ever is a "normal".

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 13:33:59

Learned helplessness as I understand it one potential psychological result of feeling that life is not good but cannot be changed, a sort of giving up.

I do not think 'obedience' is the cause, I would say that 'obedience' could be a response, but the fact a child is obedient would not necessarily mean they suffer from learned helplessness. Some children are more rule abiding than others.

It is common amongst primary children to go along with things, the criminal age of consent is 10 (still considered too low by many experts), for precisely the reason that children are not effective/conscious decision-makers at a young age. Many children simply do as they are told.

I would say Year 5 is at the younger end of walking one's self to school - it is only allowed from Year 4 and I see many Year 5&6 pupils still being taken. Not wanting to walk to school would not in itself demonstrate learned helplessness, because it is not abnormal not to have those skills by Year 5.

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 13:36:36

Your DD is behaving in the way I would expect a yr 5 to behave - I've posted several times about the frustration I feel with my DSS when he waits for instructions rather than think for himself.

An example this morning, he was ready for school 15 minutes early - and was stood, shoes and coat on ready to go, in the dark hallway, waiting for his Dad to come down and tell him what to do. I came in from shopping and he scared the living daylights out of me when i opened the door! When I asked why he didn't pick up a book, or spend time in his room playing, he said that he didn't know that he was allowed to because his dad had told him to get ready for school.

Theres no way he could make his own packed lunch - even after two years, he still need step by step instructions to make his breakfast. Every day is the same - take a bowl out if the cupboard DSS. Get the cereal out, DSS. Pour it into the bowl, DSS. Take the milk from the fridge, DSS. Take your bowl to the table with a spoon DSS. Aagghhh!

He's begun to walk part of the way home from school (at the schools request as they have too many parents at the gates) but when the footpath he normally walks along was closed, he stopped and waited for DP to find him - even though he knows a different route as he uses it when he walks to his mums - he said he'd been told to walk that way so wasn't allowed to do it differently on Dads days.

There are several regular posters here who have older teen DSC with similar behaviour - and it scares me to think that DSS might end up unable to make simple choices for himself.

purpleroses Mon 24-Sep-12 13:38:27

Maybe it's learned, or maybe it's just temperment. My DSD2 is 12 and is still really nervous of new situations. Eg - she won't walk to the corner shop alone (it is 100m and there are no roads to cross). DP is trying to engage her in decisions around secondary schools but she just doesn't seem able to find her own point of view. She can tell you what her (much more opinionated) mum thinks, or anyone else but has no confidence in her own point of view.

BUT - her older sister is not like that at all - same background, more or less, not really encouraged in independance, but older sister just grabbed it for herself. Part of me thinks that if I'd brought DSD2 up she'd be like my two kids (much more independant) but partly I think it's just the way she is.

I'm definitely learning that she is just a very different child to my own two, and if I put her in situations that they would relish (eg being allowed to go to the park alone) she'll just panic. Need to work from where she is I guess and not make comparisons with where I think she should be, or other children are/were at the same age.

littlelamby Mon 24-Sep-12 13:38:30

Interesting question. I agree with some of what Lookingatclouds has said - obviously children will mature at different speeds. Also thinking about the adults I know, there's a huge range of general life competency levels there!

However, I think the issue of children not being given choices or opportunities to make choices/get things wrong is a big issue, and something I've thought about with my DSSs. Recently, we were making a card for their uncle, which involved dipping ripped up newspaper in tea to colour it, and then once it was dry, sticking it hapharzardly onto a card (long story about what we were trying to make!). Both of them, but particuarly the older one, were quite unconfident about doing either - they would ask if they were allowed to do another bit of paper, how long they should leave it, where they should stick it etc. I was making it up as I went along, so couldn't really give them much guidance apart from 'give it a go and see what it looks like!', which is an approach I probably use a bit too much in life... anyway, it took quite a while for them to relax into that and be able to experiment. If I'm feeling critical, I would say that their mum doesn't give them much space to experiment/mess around with an adult nearby, as they do a lot of clubs and don't have much spare time. Personally, I feel that time is massively important so you can learn about how to try new things out, and push boundaries, and take responsibilty for those decisions!

It's definitely linked to self confidence, which is something we feel both DSCs are a bit low in - and obviously there's lots of evidence linking that to separated parents and children lacking stabilty etc. However, as I often say to DP, I was an angsty child who had lots of worries and confidence issues - and I had two very loving parents who gave me tons of stability, so who knows where it comes from! However, both parents did give me lots of room to experiment and make mistakes safely - and that's definitely something that's served me well so far.

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 13:41:15

bluechair its not the 'doing as he's told' that worries me - it's the only doing as directed and showing no initiative or desire to take responsibility - he literally does nothing (sometimes for hours) unless he's specifically told what to do!

It's an avoidance strategy, I think, to prevent him getting into trouble - wasn't there a song? I'm doing nothing, 'cause then at least I'm doing nothing wrong

purpleroses Mon 24-Sep-12 13:43:58

Has he had bad experiences of being told off severely when he has done something wrong, do you think?

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 13:44:34

I would say it is perfectly normal for an 8/9 year old boy to stop if his normal route is closed. He was probably a bit worried.

Be careful of pushing too hard at him because you will make this problem worse.

I feel quite sad for a boy who stands still fully dressed not knowing what to do. Why not tell him some examples of things he could do if he's ready early to help him out.

I think your expectations are too high for his age, it is age appropriate to do things independently according to rules but not yet be able to use initiative.

JuliaScurr Mon 24-Sep-12 13:45:33

I reckon OP could be right; I've noticed this with dd's friends. They have no initiative because everything is done for them, decided for them. They are told what to do all the time. It makes them a bit passive

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 13:46:23

If you think he is scared of getting into trouble, than you must say very kindly 'it's absolutely fine to do nothing DSS, but if you wanted to you can do x, y or z instead'. Getting cross with him for trying to stay out of trouble will only compound the problem I think.

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 13:48:19

My DSS is not passive and is actually very good at taking care of his own things, but I could well imagine him just stopping if his route from school were blocked.

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 13:56:23

purple his mums a screamer - so yes, it's likely he's been harshly handled over fairly minor things.

He can't/won't dress independently after his swimming lesson - when DP spoke to his mum about it, she says that she does it for him because he's too slow sad

It's funny, I watch the DCs tumbling out of school and they all seem comfortable and relaxed - by contrast, DSS seems terribly serious and anxious about being alone without an adults hand to hold.

theredhen Mon 24-Sep-12 14:05:33

Do you think there could be some learning disability?

I have a friend who has a teenage daughter who has been just like your DSS, incapable of making the most simple decisions, very compliant but will literally just wait to be told what to do.

She's now just being tested for Aspergers, and it seems likely she will have a positive diagnosis after all these years, of us thinking it's her upbringing/temperament.

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 14:10:10

Doing things for kids because they are too slow is counterproductive and disempowering certainly, they will only get better/quicker if they practice.

If you said to him 'it doesn't matter how long you take but please dress yourself' what would he do? Would he cry/tantrum?

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 14:10:49

Does he dress himself in the morning?

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 14:18:29

Yes, he dresses himself in the morning.

It's taken DP about a year to get to the point where he can ask DSS to get himself changed after swimming and he doesn't look panic stricken and literally tremble while he does it.

There are no tantrums - the idea of DSS displaying that sort of emotion has made me LOL - it just wouldn't happen. Sometimes we get tears, but usually, it's just inaction until specifically directed which is then carried out tentatively and with lots of 'out of the corner of his eye' checks that the adult is still paying attention and if they're not - he stops again!

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 14:20:19

redhen. The school have not mentioned any issues regarding his development/progress/behaviour but I've often wondered the same - perhaps dyspraxia?

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 14:22:23

Your DSS is caught a bit between one house holding him back and the other pushing him forward. He must be a bit muddled up.

I bet he knows it winds you/his dad up when he does the 'trembling' etc, maybe if you stopped trying to get him to do stuff it would remove any pay off?

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 14:32:50

I stopped expecting him to do things months ago - its no longer bothers me if he stands for hours in a dark hallway doing nothing - but then I'm accused of being a WSM; I can't win wink

littlebluechair Mon 24-Sep-12 14:44:05

In the eyes of your DH you mean - does he think you are WSM for leaving DSS standing?

Obv if you tell a DSC to do something you are a WSM, if you don't tell them you are a WSM, that's how it is!

allnewtaketwo Mon 24-Sep-12 16:47:21

I believe that my DSS1 suffers from learned helplessness. He is now 16.

His mother is extremely controlling and has never allowed him choices. She has always chosen his hobbies, subjects at school, clothes (yes still), etc etc etc. He has no opinions to call his own. He is worrying compliant and I genuinely think it does not occur to him that he is an individual who can have opinions or take independent actions.

At weekends he sits around not knowing what to do with himself (at our house that is - in his own house, he does things with his mother 24/7, or at least does things directed by her). He is unable/umwilling to do anything on his own. He is very unobservant and his 2 most frequent phrases are 'I don't know' and 'ok', when asked if he likes something.

It is very frustrating indeed to watch. I do wonder how he will progress in life without his mother's direction. Or indeed maybe he won't..........

Sorry for hijack NADM, this is just such a pertinent issue in our household.

NotaDisneyMum Mon 24-Sep-12 17:44:06

Not at all - your situation scares me as I can see DSS becoming the same!

It is the unquestioning compliance that astounds me - and worries me because I swear he'd walk off a cliff if he was told to!

As for confidence/independence on the journey to school - year 5s move to middle school in some parts of the country - which means bus journeys, split school sites, and movement between classrooms during the school day. If that level of independence is unrealistic at that age, how do any of those DCs cope?!?

taxiforme Wed 26-Sep-12 19:22:37

he doesn't have any choices at his mums

NADM I could hug you a million times over. You are describing my 12 YO DSS and the situation with my DSC.

After a nightshift this morning. I have to get back up at 7.30 (finish at 5am) and wake up DSS, make sure he has all his school stuff, make his lunch.. see him over the ROAD, he had gone out with his flies down, sort that out.. he has his older sisters here but they have to leave a bit earlier for college.

This behaviour has always been hung on some sort of LD (communication and auditory processing- however he has never been seen by an audiologist). However I was struck with his most recent report from the school which referred to lack of self esteem. It makes me want to weep.

His mum is just like as decribed by allnew plus a lot of infantalising - we have it from the older girls too but it is more pronounced with DSS. I can't think that all this is a coincidence- control= dependence..even the 15 yo DSD asks which shoes to wear ..FFS. What's more I have thought from the outset that my DSS particularly (and my DH for that matter) are terrified of "mum".

In answer to your question, in my experience I might not have worded it like that but I think you are right.

brdgrl Wed 26-Sep-12 22:19:25

Of course kids mature at different ages, but I think you know when it is something more than that. I have read some of your other threads and heard examples of the behaviours you are concerned about with DSS, and I do always think that it really sounds as if there is something going on there - some missing diagnosis.

I've raised the possibility with my DH about my own DSS, but as long as he is doing just-below-average at school and not getting into Serious Trouble, the school isn't bothered, so although both DH and the school complain about his distraction, lack of focus, inability to problem-solve...it is hard to implement any strategies for dealing with these things.

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