In the 1960s, Martin Seligman, PhD, and Steven Maier, PhD, made an important discovery during psychological experiments with animals. A behavior they called “learned helplessness” manifests when an animal (or a person) continuously faces a negative, seemingly uncontrollable situation, and stops trying to change their circumstances even when they have the ability to do so.
The prefrontal cortex, the “evolved brain,” is responsible for reason and rational decision-making, and it relays instructions to the back and bottom of the brain, the places of reflex and habit. If the “ancient brain” is not aware that it does have some control in a negative situation, it will fail to do its job, and if this happens regularly, its malfunction will become a habit that evades control if the brain’s owner is not conscious of it.
Parents often attach themselves to their children and become codependent, unconsciously hindering their child’s necessary development of independence and autonomy in order to satiate their inner child’s unmet need to feel loved and needed. Children are susceptible to learned helplessness in sports or academics, especially with a codependent parent. After several instances of hardship, and especially after receiving negative responses from parents, they may take an apathetic or negative stance toward the pursuit of excellence.
As parents, our task of raising kids is like gardening. We nourish our precious plants with water and nutrients, but we can’t grow for them. Sooner or later, they need independence. Ours is the privilege and responsibility to cultivate (first in ourselves and then in our children) a sense of Self and self-worth that transcends earthly achievements. Your children need to know that you would love them even if they got straight Fs.
As you learn to derive your sense of purpose from your own internal self-worth, and as you teach your children to value themselves and cultivate self-worth, you will find that life gets a lot more joyful.
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