It seems like a lot of young people today feel helpless and overwhelmed. They’re anxious and stressed and have little confidence in their ability to solve their own problems. In fact, they feel like victims in their lives.
There are two types of childhood experiences that leave young people feeling this way: the experience of childhood abuse and trauma that leaves the young person with a sense of “learned helplessness,” and the experience of being so bubble-wrapped and overly protected that the young person fails to develop a strong sense of autonomy, accountability and confidence.
The experience of trauma leaves lasting scars. The young person’s feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed can linger for decades.
Abuse and trauma are debilitating, and when a child is hurt by an adult and no other adult comes to protect or rescue him, he’s left with what’s called “learned helplessness,” or the belief that he’ll never be able to escape similar hurts when he’s grown up. As an adult, he’ll feel incapable of fending for himself.
What few of us consider, however, is how debilitating it is to be raised by parents who bubble wrap their child.
It’s terrible to grow up being hurt or abused but it’s just as bad for a child when her parents take over doing the things that the child should be learning how to do for herself, or when the parents protect the child from every possible hurt, loss or disappointment.
While it’s clear that trauma can be extremely damaging, an excess of coddling and overprotecting can have the same result, as the child fails to build the necessary skills and resilience (not to mention character) that will enable her to cope with the inevitable challenges of life.
Victim-mentality is a sense of helplessness in the face of difficulties. It’s a sense of fearfulness, a lack of confidence and the experience of self-doubt. Someone with victim-mentality believes that they can’t cope with life’s stresses and that other people are far better equipped to deal with their problems than they themselves are.
Traumatized young people often grow up feeling this way, but so do many kids who have grown up with helicopter parents. It’s clearly not just the presence of abuse but an excess of parental smothering that prevents a young person from growing up to feel confident and empowered. The cure for those who’ve been neglected, abused or traumatized is to spend time on healing the emotional wounds incurred from such a childhood and to develop a deep and lasting sense of self-confidence — confidence in their ability to handle whatever life throws them.
In my book, Emotional Overeating, I outline my theory of addiction, recognizing it as a misguided attempt at emotional self-care. In the book, I detail my “four-pronged approach” to emotional healing from a hurtful childhood.
The cure for those disempowered young people who’ve grown up with helicopter parents is similar yet different. They, too, need to build their self-confidence, but for them it’s by taking on challenges, and building a sense of agency and mastery in life.
They must learn to stand on their own two feet. They must build coping strategies and resilience on the face of loss, failure and disappointment.
Facing challenges is part of growing
It’s necessary for these young people to face the things that are uncomfortable, awkward and scary and to see that often, they can succeed if they go for it. And if things don’t work out the way they hoped, they can use these experiences as opportunities to learn valuable life lessons.
Someone with victim-mentality is unable to take responsibility for themselves. They see others as the source of their difficulties and blame others for their problems. More worrisome, they expect other people to solve their problems for them.
Over-protected children aren’t allowed to confront their problems on their own, so they never develop confidence in their own coping skills. These children grow up feeling just as helpless, overwhelmed and without agency as those who were traumatized when young.
Parents today are more aware of the negative impact of trauma on the development of their children. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction and have been over-protecting their kids.
Clearly, going to the other extreme doesn’t work. Children need to be encouraged to face challenges, take on responsibilities and accept the consequences of their actions. Parents must help them to think independently, discover their own coping strategies and learn from their mistakes. This is the type of parenting that build resilience and character and that will prevent a child from feeling like a helpless victim when they grow up.
This post was written by Dr. Marcia Sirota and originally appeared on Medium. Dr. Marcia Sirota is an author, speaker, coach and psychiatrist and the author of "Be Kind, Not Nice: How to Stop People-Pleasing, Build Your Confidence and Discover Your Authentic Self." Sign up for her popular newsletter, Wisdom Wednesday, at her website. Her books are available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.