Learned Helplessness

Psychologist Boris Gindis, who specializes in treating post-institutionalized behavior in internationally adopted children, has found that adopted children who spent many years of their early childhood in an orphanage exhibit certain “learned (acquired) behaviors that could have been…effective in orphanages but became…counter-productive in the new family environment.” This is what Shannon Chua was referring to in her testimony* on Orphan Sunday, the dynamic which the four families (including my family), who a couple years ago adopted older orphans from China, are now experiencing.

The “post-orphanage behavior” that my family is being confronted with the most as we care for our adopted daughter Anah is what Dr. Gindis calls “learned helplessness”:

Children in orphanages have been conditioned to get more attention from caregivers when they appear helpless: the more independent children in an institutional environment are, the less attention they receive. Some post-institutionalized children have deeply internalized this behavior and manage to appeal to a wide audience with demonstrated helplessness…. Many of these children actually have the needed skills or knowledge, but are resistant to any attempt to encourage them to act independently. There is, of course, a genuine need for help, but sometimes the line between learned helplessness and real need may be rather thin.”  (http://www.bgcenter.com/BGPublications/OrphanageBehavior.htm)

When Anah first joined our family, we had no idea what she was capable of. We knew that her Down Syndrome limits her cognitive abilities, and she was obviously entering into a completely foreign culture and language which meant communication was severely hampered. Therefore in our initial attempts to help her adjust and learn to function within our family, we ended up doing a lot of things for her until we could see what she was capable of doing on her own.

Now that she has been with us for about 26 months—during which she has been fully evaluated medically and received all needed treatment, has quickly gained a basic English vocabulary, and has been loved and nurtured—we have a much better idea of her capabilities. What we are discovering now is that she is less hindered by her Down Syndrome than we initially thought, but is actually hindered more by her stubborn resistance to thinking for herself and acting independently, which is essentially “learned helplessness.” There are skills which we know that she is fully capable of doing because have seen her do them many times, yet she will sit and look at us blankly, waiting for us to tell her what’s next or to do it for her.

Ironically, this learned helplessness, which we struggle to overcome in our daughter, is the very thing that we as children of God struggle to practice in relation to our Heavenly Father. We work hard to teach Anah (and our other children) how to function independently, knowing that we as parents will not always be around to help them. Yet at the same time, God works in us (and our children) to teach us to depend on Him fully, knowing that He is always present to help us and that we cannot function apart from Him. If Anah’s issue is learned helplessness, then our issue is learned self-sufficiency.

Paul Miller, in his excellent book A Praying Life (I told you I keep coming back to that book!), says this about helplessness: “The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together. The same is true for prayer. The very thing we are allergic to—our helplessness—is what makes prayer work. It works because we are helpless. We can’t do life on our own.” (pg. 55)

It is true that we can’t do life on our own. But we think we can. We act as if we can. We attempt to operate independently from God. The very things that frustrate us about Anah’s learned helplessness are the things we do not do—but should—in relating to God. We do NOT wait for Him to show us what to do. We do NOT wait for Him to give us the answer. We do NOT wait for Him to do it for us. No, we just plow forward in our own strength, with our own wisdom, trusting in our own ability to make things happen.

Anah does need to learn to think for herself, and I’d certainly appreciate your prayers toward that end. But I also need to learn to be OK with being helpless—to be OK with being dependent, to be OK with my inabilities—because in my helplessness God is proven to be all-sufficient. So I’d appreciate your prayers toward that end as well.