Kicking the “Helpless” Habit: 4 Strategies for Success

mom fixing daughter's shoe

It’s 8:15 AM and, as usual, you’re struggling to get yourself and your 6-year-old daughter out the door on time. 

After a hurried morning routine of brushing teeth, picking out clothes, and packing lunches, you’re just about ready to load into the car. All you have left is to put on shoes.

Simple enough, right?

“Mom, can you tie my shoes?” your daughter asks (even though she’s been able to tie them herself for a year now).

“No, you can do it,” you insist.

“No, I can’t,” she whines. “It’s too HARD!” 

You sigh, clearly annoyed, but drop to your knee and tie her shoes for her. You feel defeated, but at least you’ll get her to school on time…

Fellow parents, raise your hand if you’ve been here before. Time and time again, overwhelmingly irritated when your child asks–or demands–you help them with something they are perfectly capable of doing themselves?

As tough as it may be, take comfort! You are most certainly not alone.

Every family deals with this type of feigned helplessness from time to time. If it typically only happens once in a blue moon, no need to fret! We all have our moments.

But if you’re dealing with incessant whining, pleading, and nagging for help, day in and day out, you’ve come to the right place. Because you don’t have to simply grin and bear it, hoping this rough season is just another passing phase.

You CAN help your kids kick the “helpless” habit!

Using a few simple strategies, I’ll show you how you can put the brakes on this exaggerated helplessness and give you insight into recognizing when help is truly needed. 

So, put those hoops away. There’s no more need to jump through them! Because, soon enough, you’ll notice the helplessness leaving your household–for good!

Normal Request vs. Special Service

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Amy, sometimes my kids really DO need my help!”

And I agree!

In fact, many of the parents who’ve taken my FREE WEBINAR or are Positive Parenting Solutions Members have had this very same concern.

But it’s important to understand the distinction between your child truly needing help and simply wanting to engage you in a power struggle. In other words, when they ask for help, are they making a normal request or seeking a special service?

Let’s break it down…

Normal Request

Your 2-year-old son is absolutely ecstatic to open his birthday present and find a cozy new set of pajamas with his favorite superhero’s emblem across the chest. 

Of course, just before bedtime, he starts to get upset when he tries to dress himself and his little fingers fumble with the button holes.

“Help me!” he sobs. “I can’t do it.”

Naturally, you step in to assist. This is a skill deficit. He has not yet acquired the skills to button his own pajamas, so asking for your help is a perfectly reasonable and normal request!

It should come as no surprise to you that kids need help–sometimes a lot! And as parents, it’s in our very nature to want to give them that assistance. It feels good to be needed and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

However, it’s important that we only help our children when that help is actually needed. And, like this example, when they make a normal request for help, it’s totally fine to lend a helping hand.

Special Service

Now, let’s say that same little boy a few years down the road gets another set of pajamas that he absolutely adores.

With age and more mature dexterity, he’s now mastered the ability to button the shirt all by himself. In fact, you’ve seen him do it many times! 

Still, bedtime rolls around and, once again, he’s shouting for help.

“I can’t button my shirt. I need YOU to do it!” 

This time, instead of tenderly leaning in to button up your sweet baby’s shirt, you do so begrudgingly. You find yourself angrily pulling each button through every little hole as your son stares back at you, soaking in a huge hit of attention and power.

He played the helpless card and it worked out…in his favor.

So, What’s the Difference?

Curious how you can tell the difference between a normal request and a special service?

That’s easy. Your gut will tell you!

Normal requests for help rarely leave us feeling angry or played. After all, as I’ve mentioned before, that’s what we do as parents–we help our kids! 

But if the request leaves you feeling taken advantage of or irritated–you know he can do the task himself, yet he regularly asks for help–that’s a sure sign of a special service! Time to hit the breaks, fast!

Let’s discuss what strategies you can use to do just that.

4 Strategies to Kick the “Helpless” Habit

Strategy #1: Take Time for Training

training is an investment in good behavior

Training is an investment in good behavior. And a worthwhile one at that.

This is why Take Time for Training is just one of the many power-packed tools we at Positive Parenting Solutions offer our members.

When you take time, one-on-one, to train your child how they should behave and in new tasks, they will begin to feel more capable and independent–eliminating the desire to act helpless! And the best part? It’s so easy!

Let’s say your 6-year-old daughter has been having a hard time getting herself ready in the mornings. You know she can brush her teeth and fix her hair by herself, yet she insists on having you do it for her.

This is your cue to Take Time for Training. (Even if you think she is already capable.)

You might say, “Sweetie, the past few mornings, you seemed to have trouble brushing your teeth and fixing your hair. Let’s take a few minutes to practice right now so you know exactly what to do tomorrow morning.” 

Then, role play! 

Give her the chance to practice doing the tasks herself. Not only will this prove to you (and her!) that she is capable of getting ready, but it will also give her a much-needed boost of confidence and independence. 

Just remember, this tool is meant to be fun! Keep the training positive, remain calm, and avoid criticism. Everything else will fall into place nicely.

Strategy #2: Give Clear Expectations

You did it! You finally hit that parenting sweet spot. Your youngest child can now pour his own cereal.

Now you can spend your days dreaming of getting a full night’s rest and sleeping in until–dare you say it?-7 AM! 

Of course, that dream is short-lived. It’s 5:30 AM and you wake up to your son’s face mere inches from your own. 

“Mom, I’m hungry.” 

“Pour yourself a bowl of cereal, Honey,” you answer groggily.

“I CAN’T do it right! You need to get it for me.” 

So much for hitting that sweet spot…

Here’s the thing. Kids aren’t mind readers. So if we want them to act a certain way, we need to make sure we’re giving them very clear expectations–and giving them in advance.

The night before, perhaps try something like, “Honey, you are growing up in so many ways and I know you’re capable of pouring your own cereal in the morning. Instead of coming to me early tomorrow morning, if you want breakfast, I expect you to get it yourself. Let’s make sure everything is within your reach so you can handle this all on your own.” 

Solidify this by being encouraging. Remember, we want them to want to do things on their own. It’s empowering!

By setting your expectations early–with encouragement–and making sure they are crystal clear, your child will have a full understanding of what is expected of him with no excuse for helplessness. You know he is capable and so does he! 

Pro Tip: I’ve crafted a list of 27 Encouraging Phrases that you can use to empower your kids – Grab your FREE copy today.
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Strategy #3: Walk Away

Remember when your daughter first started throwing temper tantrums that you knew were solely for your benefit and you decided to walk away rather than give her any attention for the outbursts?

Well, here’s some great news–you can do that again! At least sometimes.

When it comes to feigned helplessness, the root of the issue is her desire for power and attention. And just as with tantrums, sometimes you need to know when to simply walk away.


Because there is power in walking away! When you take away the attention she’s so desperately seeking, her helplessness loses its intrigue and sends her a clear message: This doesn’t work.

When she pulls the helpless card, stay completely cool, calm, and–most importantly–unimpressed.

If you need to say something, keep it simple and to the point. Perhaps try, “I’m confident you can handle this all by yourself. I’ll be in the other room when you’re ready to move on.”

And then walk away.

Sticking around and providing any sort of attention could suck you into an unnecessary power struggle.

Strategy #4: Use a When-Then Routine 

Despite your weekly family meetings, discussions about family contributions, and having years of practice under his belt, your 9-year-old still insists that his room cannot be cleaned without your help. 

“I can’t tuck my sheets in.” 

“I don’t know how to fold my clothes right.” 

“You clean it so much better than I do!”

His list of excuses is a mile long and you are just about at the end of your rope. Wouldn’t it just be easier to clean it for him? 

Maybe in the short term. But I promise you, cleaning his room for him would be doing you AND your son a huge disservice. Fortunately, you have options!

One great thing about kids is that they absolutely thrive on predictable routines. And when we need them to take action, using a When-Then Routine is a wonderful tool to get them motivated–especially when time is of the essence!

The basic idea behind the When-Then Routine is to delay something more appealing until the less appealing task has been completed.

“WHEN you are dressed, THEN we’ll have breakfast.” 

“WHEN you finish your book report, THEN you can do some reading for fun.”

“WHEN you finish studying, THEN you can enjoy some TV time.”

And of course, “WHEN you are finished cleaning your room and I’ve inspected it, THEN you can go out and play with your friends.” All of a sudden, the burden is on your son’s shoulders and off of yours.

It’s a simple concept yet one of the most powerful tools in our parenting toolbox. And the best part? The consequence is built-in! No need to nag, yell, or remind.

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, be sure to check out Step 3 of the Parenting Success System for 5 Ground Rules for When-Then Routines.

Final Thoughts

With all the whining, begging, and pleading for “help”, getting your kid to kick the “helpless” habit may seem next to impossible. But by using these 4 strategies, you absolutely can empower your child to be more capable and self-sufficient. 

Now, I can’t promise this will be an instant fix. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee your child will play the helpless card again. Why wouldn’t they? It’s worked in the past!

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

Before you know it, your child will be more confident, capable, and empowered. And their excessive helplessness? That will be leaving your house for good!

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.