A friend teaches in a preschool and recently spoke to me about the increasing number of kids who are ‘helpless’. (I’m putting helpless in inverted commas because I don’t want to label a child ‘helpless’.)

A rough definition would be a child who lacks resilience. Resilience being the stuff inside us that tells us, “You can do it!”

Specific examples of a ‘helpless’ child’s behaviours (these are real!) include:

  • A 3-year-old having to lift one of her legs up and over the chair to get it under the table. Instead of experimenting with her body and working out how to do it, she starts screaming, crying and yelling out, “Help, help, help me, I can’t move my leg. My leg is stuck. H..e..l..p!”
  • A 4-year-old girl, all of a sudden starts sobbing and sobbing. When the teacher asks, “What’s wrong?” she says, “I can’t pull my sleeve up, I can’t pull my sleeve up.”

General behaviours of ‘helpless’ children include continual whinging, continual crying, some obvious ‘over-acting’ and statements like, “I’m tired. I’m sick. I can’t do it. You do it.”

When I was a behaviour teacher these kinds of behaviours triggered me the most! I just wanted to shake these kids and say, “Get it together, of course you can do it!”

Rudolf Dreikur, an Austrian-American psychiatrist and educator http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rudolf_Dreikurs developed a theory called ‘The Four Goals of Misbehaviour’ which lists the ways children behave to meet their need for belonging. These include: attention seeking, power struggle, revenge and inadequacy.

The ‘helpless’ child would fit Dreikur’s inadequacy, which means the ‘helpless’ child believes they belong if they behave as though they can’t do anything for themselves.

Where do kids get beliefs like that?

From their parents of course!

If you are an amazing parent who absolutely dotes on your toddler or child, you may be contributing to your child’s inadequacy and their belief that they must be helpless to belong in your family and in turn elsewhere too.

Do you do everything for your toddler or child? Do you dress them or lay their clothes out each day? Do you wash their face, hands, dry them, brush their hair, pack their bag, zip up their jumper and drop everything else to help them? Do you do it because it is the quickest way to get out the door in the morning? Or maybe you do it because you love being a mum or a dad and it makes you feel important and purposeful.

The consequence of doing absolutely everything for our kids is that they learn that they can’t do anything for themselves, or that if they do something for themselves it isn’t ‘good enough’ because it isn’t as good as mum or dad or the preschool teacher does it.

So how do you help these kids?

Dreikur says you give the child who is behaving inadequately lots of praise and encouragement for the efforts they do make. The idea is that their sense of belonging is then met through small gains and achievements. This actually works but it takes a lot of patience and encouragement from mum, dad and the preschool teachers.

Alternatively we can look at the problem from a Sparky and Shady point of view, this approach assumes the child has met their Sparky and Shady.

The ‘helpless’ child believes something Shady and it is obvious that their Shady belief isn’t helping them to meet their needs in a healthy or loving way! Perhaps they believe they have to be helpless to get any number of their needs met, which include: safety & security, love & belonging, self-esteem & importance and purpose. See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

It is also apparent that the ‘helpless’ child is not listening to their Sparky at all. Sparky is the part of us that says, “You can do it!” Isn’t it a shame they don’t know how capable they really are!!

Okay, so how do you help a ‘helpless’ child using Sparky and Shady?

Let’s follow the Shady short cut procedure for coping with problems to work out what to do with a child with the “I can’t pull my sleeve up” problem.

When you approach the child who is sobbing suggest taking a Shady short cut and ask them, “What’s wrong?”

Listen attentively while the child tells you what Shady is thinking and allow them to cry (or sob). They may say something like; “I can’t get my sleeve up. I can’t pull it up. It isn’t working. My sleeve keeps falling down when I pull it up. It isn’t working. I can’t do it. Etc.”

If they run out of things to say ask them lovingly and genuinely, “What else?” If they repeat themselves say, “Yes I heard that one, anything else?”

When they can’t think of anything new suggest a Sparky short cut. Help the child to hold their ring finger and to close their eyes and ask Sparky, “What now?” Remind the child that “What now?” means, “How do I solve this problem?” or “What do I do now?” or “How can I fix this?”

Ask them to tell you what they heard, saw, imagined or found out and if it is Sparky – suggest they do it! Give them lots of encouragement to point out that they just solved the problem and that they “can do it!” Yippee!

If they say they can’t hear Sparky, or they say something Shady like, “Sparky said you have to do it!” Then ask them if they want you to ask your Sparky for advice to help them.

If they say, ‘Yes’ then ask your own Sparky what to do and pass this on to the child. It may be a compromise where the child pulls up the sleeve and you fold it for them. Either way trust that the answer you get is best for the moment and go with it.

If the child says, ‘No, I don’t want you to ask your Sparky, just do it!’ Then let them know that you believe in them and you know they can do it (or help you to do it) and that when they are ready you will help them but you will not do it for them.

The child may throw an absolute tantrum or start crying uncontrollably if you don’t do it for them… but this is a good thing! If a child genuinely believes they cannot do anything for themselves, then it is healthy for them to cry and cry until they can’t cry anymore. As parents (and teachers) we often try to stop a child crying, to soothe them, or to stop the racquet so others won’t judge us, but is crying such a bad thing? Of course you can hold them and cuddle them while they cry, BUT don’t solve the problem for them. Instead when they finish crying ask them again, “What now?” or “What does Sparky say to do now?”

Be persistent in your approach to their inadequacy by telling them you believe in them and their ability to do things for themselves. Encourage them to listen to Sparky (their own inner coach!) and encourage them when they do do something for themselves. Write it down in a book or make a chart of “Things I can do myself!”

The more the so called ‘helpless’ child can do for themselves and the more encouragement they receive for doing things for themselves the more they believe in themselves and their abilities, which means they will do more for themselves! A lovely cycle to be in!

In time the child’s new belief will be, ”I belong because I can do lots of things for myself!”

Happy helping those gorgeous kids to help themselves!

Love Kathy