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Learned Helplessness

Childhood Overindulgence Can Lead to Learned Helplessness

Depression, anxiety, low achievement are associated with learned helplessness.

In the late sixties, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier were doing research on dogs and conditioned escape at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a fictional conversation and account.

Seligman: "Did you see that?"

Maier: "What?"

Seligman: "The dog just gave up. Just quit. He didn't even try to escape even though he got shocked over and over. It's like he has learned to become helpless."

Maier: "I would not have guessed that! We need to figure out why that happened. Learned helplessness. That's very interesting."

Seligman: "I think we've stumbled onto something that has far-reaching significance."

Maier: "Yes. It might be just as important as Pavlov conditioning his dogs to salivate"

Seligman: "I don't know about that, but I do like your take on positive psychology."

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Martin Seligman and Steven Maier discovered the psychological principle of learned helplessness in the 1960s while conducting conditioning research on dogs. They placed dogs in a shuttlebox with two sides separated by a short fence that was low enough for a dog to jump over. The dogs were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. The dogs in the first condition did not wear a restraining harness. They quickly learned to jump over the fence to escape the electric shock. The dogs in the second condition wore a harness that prevented them from jumping over the fence to escape the electric shock. After conditioning, the dogs in the second condition didn't try to escape the electric shock even though they were unrestrained and could have escaped. They had learned to become helpless.

"Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so." Psychology Today

Can Humans Develop Learned Helplessness?

One critique of learned helplessness research in controlled laboratory settings with animals like dogs, rats, and mice is that it may not translate to humans in the real world. That said, what is the simple answer to the question, "Can humans develop learned helplessness?" Yes.

In humans, learned helplessness is associated with depression in adults, depression and lower achievement in children, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Does Childhood Overindulgence Lead to Learned Helplessness?

There are three types of childhood overindulgence; Too Much, Soft Structure, and Overnurture. I believe that when parents over-nurture their children by doing things for them that they should be doing for themselves parents rob their children of skills, and in a sense, these parental actions foster a form of learned helplessness in their children. Over-nurtured children become helpless. They grow up lacking the skills they need to function as adults. Helpless. Stuck. And in some situations; feeling hopeless.

One of the ways parents teach helplessness is by not requiring their children to do chores. Instead, parents do all the chores and over-function for their children. Most of all children do not see that it is important for every member of the family to contribute to the well-being of the family.

The topic of my upcoming posts will be on chores and children:

Practice Aloha. Do all things with Love, Grace, and Gratitude.

© 2021 David J. Bredehoft


Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1–9.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Girgus, J. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1986). Learned helplessness in children: A longitudinal study of depression, achievement, and explanatory style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2), 435–442.

Miller, W.R., & Seligman, E.P. (1976). Learned helplessness, depression and the perception of reinforcement. Behavioral Research and Therapy. 14(1):7-17.

Maier, S. F. (1993). Learned helplessness: Relationships with fear and anxiety. In S. C. Stanford & P. Salmon (Eds.), Stress: From synapse to syndrome (p. 207–243). Academic Press.

Bargai, N., Ben-Shakhar, G. & Shalev, A.Y. (2007). Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in battered women: The mediating role of learned helplessness. Journal of Family Violence. 22, 267–275.

Love, H., Cui, M., Hong, P., & McWey, L. M. (2020): Parent and child perceptions of indulgent parenting and female emerging adults’ depressive symptoms, Journal of Family Studies. DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2020.1794932

Bredehoft, D. J., Mennicke, S. A., Potter, A. M., & Clarke, J. I. (1998). Perceptions attributed by adults to parental overindulgence during childhood. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education. 16(2), 3-17.

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