Child Development: The “Helpless” Child Syndrome

Ever since Gavin was little, I have thought about homeschooling him. Even though I eventually sent him to playschool, I still continue to do activities and programs with him at home through a form of “semi” homeschooling. Lately, however, I am beginning to realise that Gavin learns better from others than he does from me – at least, this is the case for now. Yes, as hard as it is to come to terms with that, I think I have finally accepted it.

When he was little, I tried to teach him to swim but eventually gave up because we made so little progress. I figured that he was just too timid for the water. Then his uncle stepped in and they made more progress in one day than I did in the entire time I tried to teach him.

Gavin turned 4 at the start of the year which meant he was suppose to move to the Pre-school 1 class at Heguru but I allowed him to continue in the Toddler class because he didn’t want to “go by himself”. Recently, I sent him to a replacement class that coincided with Gareth’s class so he attended class by himself. When I asked the sensei how it went, she told me that he was actually much better in class without me being present. So for his final Toddler class, I let him go in alone and I peeked in through the window and saw that it was true. He was so much more cooperative compared to when I sit in class with him!

Last Friday, Gavin had his first art class. I stayed to observe. It started well, but ended up with him experimenting with paints on the canvas. Yesterday, I let him attend art class on his own and from the sounds of it, he painted a lot better without me being around.

Earlier in the week, we were at the Jigsaw Puzzle shop in 1Utama and Gavin begged me to buy him a 1000 piece jigsaw of the Metamorphosis of Mickey. Seeing that it was a 1000 pieces, I was hesitant because I thought it would be too hard. Since they didn’t have a smaller size for that picture, he pleaded and pleaded until I caved. I figured that the pattern could be easily broken down to make the puzzle easier so I was sure he could work it out with some guidance.

We started working on the jigsaw and he kept insisting that I had to help him. When I started helping him, he started to disappear to do other things – play with his trains, watch TV, annoy his brother… I had to keep reminding him that he promised to work on it. No matter how easy I made it for him, he would always complain it was too hard. Yet, when I left him alone to work on it, he could always finish all the tasks I set. Unfortunately, the moment I came back, he would start to feign helplessness again.

It’s gotten to the point that he complains he can’t put on his own socks and I realise what the problem is. He’s vying for the attention I give his brother when I help Gareth with his socks, towel him down after a shower, put on his clothes, carry him, etc. It is like Gavin is afraid to demonstrate too much independence around me because he wants to be babied like his brother. It has been a difficult road to navigate because the more I push him towards independence, the more “helpless” he becomes.

I’m just wondering, is there something that can be done about it or is it a phase that I’m going to have to wait out until Gareth is old enough to handle most things on his own?

I’ve been easing off on our home activities because I feel like I have to get behind him and push all the time or he won’t do anything. I hate how naggy I’m starting to sound, not to mention his whininess about how he “can’t do it” is also driving me up the wall. It’s hard not to feel upset that he does so well with other people and collapses into a helpless heap in front of me. When I send Gavin off to classes, I hear from the teachers how well he does and how capable he is. It’s like I don’t even know the person they’re talking about.

So tell me, do you have an older child that behaves like this? Have you been through this experience before? How did you get past it? Did your child just grow out of it?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

10 thoughts on “Child Development: The “Helpless” Child Syndrome

  1. I may face the same problem later when baby arrives. In the meantime, Shichida’s book on educating 0-6 years old has a FAQ section, one answer addresses child’s independence:

    Go back to the 8 Seconds Hugging Method. When the child displays an act of independence, praise him and hug him tightly for at least 8 seconds. Keep repeating and he’d grow more independent.

    Of course, you may also supplement with the 5 Minutes Suggestion Method.

    Generally, keep relying on these 2 methods to improve child’s behaviour. Work a million times better than nagging cos they target the heart and the subconscious mind. Good luck! 🙂


    1. Hi MieVee – thanks for the reminder. I’m afraid the frustration has given me tunnel vision and I forgot about those. I have been doing the 8 second hug but probably not as frequent as I ought to. Also been rather lax with the 5 minute suggestion – I shall start doing it again.


  2. These 2 methods are my lifeline all the time. And it’s amazing that I see the results almost immediately, especially the 5 Minutes Suggestion Method. I use it mainly to target sleeping issues as it’s our main area of frustration. Of course, they’re so simple to implement. 🙂


  3. I like your blog very much on the activities you are doing with your children.

    My daughter behave the same way after my son was born. My son is now 15 months and my daughter is 3.5 years old. She would want me to wear her socks and shoes when she sees me helping the little one. The pre-school teacher saw that my daughter wanted me to wear her socks and shoes after picking her up from nap. The pre-school teacher talked to her that she is now a big sister and mommy need help with the baby. Since then, she has been very independant doing things on her own. She would play with her brother while I cook. Maybe try have someone that your son look highly and talk to him on one to one.


    1. Pei-Lin – thanks for the suggestion. I’ll try that. I did try talking to him myself before about needing him to help me and he agreed but the follow through was not there. I guess the probably was that it was me talking to him about it. I will try getting someone else to talk to him.


  4. Have you tried setting up the house in a more Montessori oriented way? You can have activities that promote the independence and give him the confidence when activity completed but you are still there when he needs extra assistance.


    1. Hi Michelle – thanks for the suggestion. I intend to do that when we get to our new home. RIght now I have a semi-Montessori set up. Unfortunately, because we live with my in laws (it was a temporary arrangement that has lasted a lot longer than I had anticipated) I haven’t been able to do a full Montessori set up. The house is currently too cramped for a proper set up. It would involve me throwing out my MIL’s stuff to clear space and that’s just not an option. My Montessori cupboard is on a landing at the top of a long flight of stairs so even if they can reach their things, they often have trouble taking them down the stairs. There isn’t really a space for them to play without them getting their stuff on the majoy walkways. Our bedroom is set up with a book shelf and readily accessible toys but there’s no table that Gavin can work from and if he works on the floor, Gareth starts taking things, stepping on them, and generally annoying Gavin. For now I’m impatiently waiting for our new place…


  5. i’m facing the same prob like you are having. often, i feel guilty for not being able to spend as much time with the older one as previously. wonder if can share with me mievee’s suggestions on the 8 Seconds Hugging and the 5 Minutes Suggestion Methods? we are not attending any right brain classes…


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