Helping Kids Kick the “Helpless” Habit

by Amy Mccready

Empowering Your Child to be Capable & Self-Sufficient

Fellow parents… raise your hand if you ever feel the overwhelming sense of irritation when your child asks you (maybe for the fifteenth time) to do something he or she can totally do for themselves. Is your hand up in the air? Take comfort – you’re not alone!

All families deal with helplessness from time to time. If feigned helplessness is a once-in-a-blue moon occurrence at your house – no big deal. We all have our moments! However, if your child acts helpless on a daily basis for things he can and should be doing for himself, it’s time to put the brakes on that behavior!

The type of helplessness we need to reign in is when kids ask (demand, whine for) us to do things they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. Depending on the age of your child, it might be something like, “Daaaaaad, I need you to ‘butter my bread’, ‘tie my shoe’, or ‘get me a juice box.’”

You KNOW they can do it. THEY know they can do it. They are choosing to act helpless to keep you at their beck and call – to get you to jump through hoops to meet their whims and demands. This kind of helplessness is called Special Service and it’s a classic power struggle. It’s not only aggravating – it creates unrealistic expectations for your child that their every wish will be granted, and that’s not healthy for anyone!

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with helping our kids, Amy?” Rest assured, there’s nothing wrong with helping one another when needed. A family is a team and we have each other’s backs. However, when “helplessness” is really a demand for Special Service, the child is manipulating the parent for attention or power.

How do you know if it’s Special Service or just a normal request?

Simple: Your gut will tell you. Here’s an example: You are standing next to the silverware drawer and your daughter says, “Mom, can you grab a spoon for me?” You say, “sure” and hand her a spoon. No big deal. It’s a perfectly reasonable request.

Example two: You are busy packing lunches and you let your daughter know it’s time to leave in 5 minutes. She breaks into a chorus of “Moooooooom, I need you to help me get dressed! I can’t do it.” You KNOW she can do it. You’ve seen her do it. She is playing the helpless card to get the attention and power hit of a “special service” request.

In the spoon example – it was a perfectly reasonable request and there was no emotion involved. In the getting dressed example, you felt annoyed in the moment because you KNOW she is ACTING helpless and now you’re ticked. It’s the gut feeling that tells you it’s special service.

That irritated feeling is your gut’s way of telling you to activate your parenting superpowers and not give in to demands that your kids can, and should, do themselves. Instead?

Put these four strategies in place:

  • Take time to train your child to do the task all by themselves. Remember, marketing is everythingso position the training in a positive light. “Sweetie, the past few mornings, you seemed to have trouble when getting dressed/putting on your shoes, etc. Let’s take a few minutes to practice so you know exactly what to do tomorrow morning.” Train her on the how-to’s and role play it.
  • Set the expectation:“You are growing up in so many ways and from now on – YOU are going to be responsible for ______. I know you can do it!”
  • Walk away. If they pull the helpless card in the moment, be totally unimpressed and walk away! With a smile on your face, simply say, “I’m confident you can handle it. I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready for breakfast.” (The exit is essential. If you stay in the room, you’re sure to get sucked right back into the power struggle.)
  • If time is of the essence, include the task as part of a When-Then Routine: “I’m confident you can do it, honey. WHEN you are dressed, THEN we’ll have breakfast. But remember the kitchen closes at 7:30. See you downstairs!” It works like a dream.

Will your kids try to pull the helpless card again? Most likely, they will! After all, acting helpless has worked for them in the past!

However, with practice and consistency on your part, they’ll get the point that you won’t jump through hoops at their every whim and demand.

In short order, your kids will feel empowered because they will become more and more capable (at something other than manipulating mom or dad)! You’ll feel empowered that your kids are learning to manage their own tasks in addition to you getting a much deserved break! (Go you!)


Parenting expert and “recovering yeller” Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling (Penguin, 2011.) Amy is a regular parenting contributor on The TODAY Show and has also appeared on Rachael Ray, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Steve Harvey and elsewhere. In her most important role, she plays mom to two teenage boys. Follow Amy on Twitter @AmyMcCreadyPPS.