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Beyond Learned Helplessness in Neurodiverse Teens

Beyond Learned Helplessness in Neurodiverse Teens

Neurodiverse teens, like all teens, are starting to assert their independence and work toward achieving specific adult goals. It’s really rewarding for parents to see their teens achieve major milestones like getting accepted to college, graduating high school, or applying for their first jobs. Unfortunately, many of the neurodiverse teens I work with find themselves feeling trapped by something called “learned helplessness.” This concept names many people’s experience where they believe something about themself that limits their goals and potential. I’m Dr. Tyler Gerdin, and I partner with neurodiverse clients to understand their abilities and maximize strengths to overcome obstacles that block them from achieving those goals, even when that obstacle is their internal negative self-talk. In this blog, I’m going to dive a little deeper into what learned helplessness is, how it impacts neurodiverse teens, and how parents can help them overcome learned helplessness and gain greater confidence and independence.

What is Learned Helplessness?

The phrase learned helplessness was actually coined to describe a behavior first observed in animals. Specifically, when some animals attempt a task and experience a negative result, they stop trying. The old adage, “An elephant never forgets,” is actually referring to this phenomenon. Baby elephants were tied up using simple ropes, and they weren’t able to get away. As adults, the elephants could easily break the rope, but they never try. This is the result of learned helplessness.

For many neurodiverse people, being told that they can’t do certain things (or telling themselves they can’t) and experiencing failures in their past attempts continues to keep them feeling frozen. To the outside world, learned helplessness in people takes many forms. It may look like passivity, low self-esteem, setting sights low, or giving up at the first challenge. When we learn helplessness, we believe we can’t do something, so we don’t try.

How Can I Help My Neurodiverse Teen Overcome Learned Helplessness?

Neurodiverse teens often feel like they want to work toward gaining more independence, but at the first sign they might not be successful, those teens feel like giving up. It’s our job as parents to keep them working and moving forward, but that doesn’t make it easy. Here are some tips to encourage your teen to take steps to move beyond learned helplessness:

· Failure is not bad – part of the reason why learned helplessness sticks is that we believe failure is a bad thing. We are unable to see the benefit of failing. When we’re unsuccessful, we have an opportunity to learn from what went wrong and make changes to improve the chances of success the next time.

· If at first you don’t succeed, try something else – along the same lines, this second recommendation is all about helping your neurodiverse teen to find new ways to approach a task if they’re not able to successfully complete it. Be creative and help your teen maximize their strengths.

· Learn to enjoy the trying – even if your neurodiverse teen never learns to excel at a specific task, they can learn to enjoy the journey. Don’t make the process about the pressure to succeed every time or do things perfectly. Instead, make the goal to have fun trying to do something you’ve never done before.

· Don’t do it for them – this can be the hardest one for parents, but it’s really important. Encourage your child to keep trying. If you can help, do so, but as much as possible, let them complete the task on their own.

Will Assessment Help?

Assessment is all about knowledge. The more you know about your teen’s needs and abilities, the better able you are to support them in safely and systematically working to achieve their goals. If your teen is struggling or you feel they could benefit from a challenge to move beyond their comfort zones, the results of assessment can guide you. If you’re ready to schedule assessment for your teen, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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