Raising Teen Girls
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Insights into the mental health and well-being of teen girls...

Learned Helplessness... what the heck is that?

She's 16, doesn't have her permit yet.. why bother, mom will just drive me everywhere.  Driving seems scary anyways.  She doesn't do any chores around the house and barely can handle the basics for herself like showering and brushing her teeth.  Everything is hard.  People are annoying and get on her nerves.  She yells a lot... feels bad afterwards. She doesn't like school, doesn't do her work.  She is actually quite bright, just doesn't try much.  It's too hard.  Her social skills are lacking... hard time ordering or buying anything.  "I can't" seems to be her motto.

She sounds depressed right?  Most likely she is depressed but the reason why might surprise you.  There is a principle that can be lurking in the background of your daughter's life and it's important to recognize it... Learned Helplessness.

It usually isn't taught on purpose.  Parent's intentions are typically genuine in wanting their daughters to be successful in life but when you have a daughter who is more emotionally sensitive or just difficult to deal with at times, you may inadvertently slip into actions or words that may communicate this to her.

So what the heck is it?

In essence, it is when a person learns to believe that they are helpless in any given situation.  They have come to learn they have no control or ability and that whatever they try will be ineffective or unsuccessful, so they stop trying.  They learn to be passive even when faced with harmful or unpleasant situations in which they actually do have some power to change.

The learning process isn't always directly taught.  It's more of a conditioning.  A parent might directly tell their daughter she is not capable of doing something but more often it's when mom or dad repeatedly do the actions for her.  She is capable but she starts to believe she doesn't have the ability and/or must have her parent's help.  Think of it like this...

when your daughter under-functions, you over-function.

It's so easy to slip into. Especially if she has intense emotions and cries for help at almost everything she tries.  This often starts in early childhood but can be worked on in the teen years and changed. 

Debbie Pincus M.S.; LMHC describes it well...

What do (young) adult under–functioners look like? Under–functioners are skilled in the art of “learned helplessness.” They have quite literally learned to be helpless, because someone was always there to pick up the pieces for them.
 
They often act irresponsibly, aren’t able to handle uncomfortable emotions well, float without goals, become ill a lot, can tend to become addicted to substances, ask for advice when they need to figure things out for themselves and get others to always help them.
 
They will often search out a partner who will take care of their needs and pick up where their parents left off. And keeping a job is hard for under–functioners, because they’re always looking for someone to swoop in and rescue them. For many people who were raised this way, the world is a scary place—and instead of venturing out and making a life for themselves, they choose to stay home with mom and dad indefinitely.

You can read the full article here.

Helicopter parenting can create learned helplessness.  There is a consistent message in helicopter parenting that tells her she "needs help".  She isn't capable, she isn't strong and she isn't enough to handle the task or situation.

I hear it over and over again from girls who have controlling parents.  They believe there must be something wrong with them because mom and dad won't let them make decisions.  Some are able to tell me that they are scared to make decisions because they haven't had a chance.  Then they end up making mistakes (sometimes big ones) and parents swoop in and shut it all down, thus communicating she isn't capable and therefore they must do it for her.

Instead, give her some space and believe in her.  She needs you to be more confident in her so that she believes in herself.  Making mistakes is a part of life and the best way to learn.  Natural consequences are the best teachers.  This is scary for parents but too often that fear is grander then it should be and it makes the situation worse.

By her mid-late teen years there should be a lot less control and a lot more guiding and dialogue.  If you are struggling to let go of some control, start small and be straight up with her.  She will often tell you where to start.  Learn to negotiate.  For example, if you have been overly-strict about dating maybe allow her to hang out with boys in a group environment first.

Depression & Anxiety

Learned Helplessness is often an underlying cause of depression and can create anxiety.  Many times girls give up and have developed a belief that they are not able to "do life" for a variety of reasons. They begin to fear that they have no control.

I see the under-over cycle play out a lot with depressed girls.  Parents are frantic in their efforts to keep her grades up, social life, health and other life areas under-control and functioning.  But she is struggling and giving up so she stops trying and allows her parents to take over, yet stays angry about it.  It almost never helps and won't make the depression better.  Sometimes it gets worse because she really doesn't have to take ownership of life if her parents have taken over.

Anxiety also develops because they recognize that they are stuck and not doing well but they believe they are incapable, so panic sets in.  They end up procrastinating a lot and becoming overly passive as a way to manage the stress.

There is no easy cure for learned helplessness.  It starts with everyone in the family making changes.  She will need to take responsibility for her life and that could look worse before it gets better.  As her confidence in her ability to make decisions, problem-solve and believe in herself grows, depression and anxiety will improve.

It's like one mom said to me "I just want her to care.  She doesn't seem to care about anything".  Until she begins to care about herself, nothing will change.  Learning to take care and responsibility for herself begins to create care.  It can be the acting or doing without the feeling that leads to caring. Once she starts caring you should see some big changes.

A good question to ask yourself is... 

What am I doing for her that she is totally capable (maybe with some coaching) of doing? 

Begin to let go of doing those things and let her take over.