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Is your kid stuck? 3 Ways to Unstick Them

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Do you feel like your child just doesn't care anymore? You've tried offering them ideas on how to re-engage with their interests, you've punished them, rewarded them, and everything in between, but nothing seems to work. It can be concerning for parents when they see their children being labeled as "unmotivated," "lazy," or "disinterested," often leading to worries about their mental health. Questions like "Are they depressed?" or "Should they go on meds?" may arise, causing deep concern and uncertainty about what to do next.


Instead of solely focusing on the behavior itself, it's crucial to zoom out and understand what your child's behavior is communicating. Is it really true that they don't care about ANYTHING? Perhaps it's more about them having learned, through life experiences, that caring doesn't seem to work. Maybe they've faced negative outcomes that conditioned them to believe that trying is pointless. This is where it becomes challenging for most parents. How can a child struggling as much as he is choose not to care about his own life? Feeling helpless in motivating someone who doesn't care can lead to frustration and even anger. After all, caring seems like such a fundamental aspect of life. How can one simply not care?!


Let's briefly delve into neuroscience to understand what's happening behind the scenes.


The Concept of Learned Helplessness:


In 1967, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted a famous research study with dogs. They found that dogs exposed to a series of electric shocks but prevented from escaping the pain eventually stopped trying to escape altogether. Later, they discovered that humans experience the same effect, known as learned helplessness.


How Does Learned Helplessness Relate to Your Child's Lack of Caring?


Your child's apparent lack of care isn't a deliberate choice but rather a default response to emotional overwhelm. Children exposed to significant life stress and who lack the ability to manage these stressors independently or have experienced traumatic events are more likely to develop learned helplessness. For them, not trying to enact behavioral changes in the face of stressors may seem easier than trying and continuing to struggle with emotional regulation. Moreover, if they have a history of knowing that Mom and Dad will fix their problems, they lack the incentive to care or take action, knowing that the issues will eventually be resolved if they wait long enough.


"Unsticking" from Helplessness:


1) Focus on intangible aspects of maturity, not just behavior change:

Avoid getting caught up in constant battles about grades, work, peers, or substance use. While these areas consume parental attention during adolescent development, therapists aim to move beyond specific content to understand the underlying issues. Although it's important to care about your child's academic performance and job prospects, shift the focus to broader concepts like freedom, independence, and responsibility—the hallmarks of healthy adolescent development.


Example 1: "I understand that we talk a lot about your effort in school, and it upsets me when I see you not giving your best. But here's the thing—I actually care more about you taking responsibility for your work and education than just your grades. I promise not to nag you about grades, but let's work together on how you can take on the responsibility of managing your schoolwork without me needing to be so involved."


Example 2: "I know I have been nagging you about getting a summer job, but I wanted to chat with you so you know where that pressure comes from. It's not so much about the specific job you get; what matters more is that you gain independence and freedom from being at home. Being at home, constantly bothered by your parents, or feeling bored all the time isn't enjoyable. While I think the job is important, the most significant part, to me, is that it brings you closer to what you want—which is to be more independent."


2) Do less and ask better questions:


When I was 20 years old, I got a fake ID to illegally purchase alcohol while away at college. I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table when my dad found out about it. Instead of reacting harshly, my Dad calmly reviewed the ID and asked, "Have you thought about what might happen if you get caught with something like this?"


He had the chance to confiscate the ID on the spot, yell at me, or laugh it off. But he did none of those things. He returned the ID to me and asked me to consider the potential consequences of my choices.


Try (and I know it's hard) to allow your child to solve their own problems. Remind them of their ability to do so by asking thoughtful questions that encourage problem-solving skills. The more you do for them, the less they learn to do themselves.


3) Challenge the story of failure:


Much of learned helplessness is based on how one perceives the world. If the world appears frightening and overwhelming, your child is more likely to give up. Work together with your child to reframe their negative worldview. Acknowledge that new experiences can be challenging and scary, but convey trust and faith in their ability to overcome obstacles. Let them know that you'll be there to support them, but not to do everything for them.


Understanding learned helplessness can shed light on your child's apparent lack of care. It's essential to focus on broader aspects of maturity rather than fixating solely on behavior change. By guiding your child through thoughtful questioning, encouraging problem-solving skills, and challenging negative perceptions, you can help them break free from learned helplessness. Remember, it's a journey of growth for both you and your child.


If you'd like to learn more about the neurobiology of learned helpless, you can find more information here.


Onwards and upwards!

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