Teach Your Child to Ask For Help—The Right Way

Asking for help is a complicated but necessary skill for children.

Posted Sep 28, 2018

Denise Carbonell /Flickr
Children need to learn how and when to ask for help.
Source: Denise Carbonell /Flickr

Knowing how and when to ask for help is a critical life skill that many children struggle to master. Their own feelings may get in the way of communicating what they need. They may also have beliefs that lead them to avoid asking for help or ask too frequently or at inappropriate times. Here are five examples of children who are stuck and having a hard time asking for the help they need plus some ways they can do so effectively.

The easily frustrated child

Stuck reaction: “I give up. It’s too hard”

Some children have a very low tolerance for frustration. As soon as they struggle, they want to give up. To break through their knee-jerk tendency to give up when things are difficult, they need to practice dealing with tolerable doses of frustration. 

They also need a plan of things they can do when they struggle. For example, with school work, they might try re-reading the instructions, underlining or circling key words, or looking again at the example. They might also try asking a classmate to explain. 

These children benefit from having a guideline that, before asking for help from an adult, they need to try two ways to solve it on their own. The two attempts give them practice coping. Also, if they explain to an adult how they’ve already tried to solve a problem on their own, the adult will be more willing to help.

A possible way to ask for help: 
“I tried _____ and _____, but I’m still stuck. Could you help me, please?”

The helpless child

Stuck reaction: “I can’t do this! I can’t do anything right!”

Some children jump quickly from struggling with a task to harshly judging themselves as completely incapable. The key with these children is to soften their black-and-white thinking. There’s some part of the task that they do understand. Being able to anchor themselves on that allows them to see that they do know something and to get the specific type of help they need to build from there. The part they do understand doesn’t have to be big—maybe they just understand the general topic or method—but it’s a starting point. Urge these kids to figure out what they do know before asking about what they don’t know. 

A possible way to ask for help: 
“I understand _____, but I’m confused about _______. Could you please explain it to me?”

The overwhelmed child

Stuck reaction: “It’s no good!” (Cries, destroys work)

Sometimes children become so overwhelmed by their feelings of frustration or inadequacy that burst into tears or even destroy their work. These children need to learn to take a break before that happens. While not strictly a form of asking for help, this is an important type of self-advocacy. These children won’t be able to process any kind of helpful suggestions or instruction until they’ve calmed down. They can also benefit from learning some self-calming strategies such as slow, deep breathing, noticing all nearby items of a certain color, or counting or doing math facts in their heads. Note that the break isn’t an escape pass. It’s just a few minutes of stepping away to settle before trying again. When they return to the task, they can use one of the previous two example statements to ask for help.

A possible way to ask for help: “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a short break before I try again.”

The perfectionistic child

Stuck reaction: “I don’t want help! I should be able to do this all by myself.”

Some children believe that asking for help is a sign that they’re stupid or incompetent. This causes a lot of unnecessary suffering and interferes with learning. Sometimes these children need help understanding when to ask for help—for example, if they’ve tried a couple of strategies and they’re not getting anywhere. There is nothing noble about needless suffering. 

Sometimes perfectionistic kids think they need to do everything on their own. Explain that refusing to ask for help when they’re struggling is the same as turning their back on knowledge. That’s not admirable; it’s just inflexible. 

An important time for these kids to get help is often before they start big projects. Perfectionistic children often have grandiose ideas of what they want to do and may benefit from having an adult help them choose something that’s do-able.

A possible way to ask for help: “Here’s what I’m planning. Do you have any suggestions?”

The oblivious child

Stuck reaction: “I need help. I need help. I need help. I need help.”

Some children ask for help in ways that annoy others. For instance, they may monopolize classroom discussions or interrupt the teacher or on-going activities. They may have mistaken ideas, such as a client I once had who knew that class participation was part of his grade but thought that meant he should raise his hand as much as possible and talk at length whenever the teacher called on him. 

These children may benefit from explanations about when to ask for help. Specifically, they should wait for a break in an activity or until the teacher has finished giving an explanation. They should also not intrude when the teacher is helping another student. While they’re waiting, they can move on to a different problem or section or continue to try on their own.

It may be useful to explain to these children that the teacher’s attention is like a pie that all the children in the class share. If one kid takes noticeably more than his fair portion without a very good reason, the other kids will be mad. 

Sometimes limits, such as aiming for no more than two questions per class period, will enable children to weigh whether their question is necessary. Some children find it helpful to have a nonverbal way of signaling the teacher when they need help, such as using a laminated circle that they keep on their desk and turning it over from green to red to signal that they’re confused without disrupting.

A possible way to ask for help: “Is now a good time for me to ask for help?

Asking for help is a surprisingly complicated skill. It requires that children recognize when they need help, manage their own feelings, predict a potential helper’s likely reaction, assess the appropriateness of asking for help in that particular situation, and clearly communicate what they need. Thinking through these issues, and coming up with relevant plans to address them, can empower children to get the help they need.  

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