Whining: Can You Be Helpless?

Whining: Can You Be Helpless?

It’s easy to smile and say, “Sure!” when a child asks you for help pleasantly. But what about when the child whines and says “I can’t”?

If that puts you on edge, this article is for you.

What stops us from helping children who are acting helpless is the belief that by providing help we will be affirming that they need it. But if we withhold assistance and try to push them into problem-solving, they will prove it to us instead.

“Try it. You can do it!” followed by “No, I can’t! See?!!” is the standard exchange that locks both you and your child into a cycle of helplessness.

When you step into your child’s shoes, you can see why:

Whining kids are already overwhelmed by the fear of failure, so the last thing they want to do is try again. Saying “I can’t,”  and engaging in halfhearted tries is their safety zone because, after all, if they don’t really try, they can’t really fail.

The way out of the cycle of helplessness starts with validating your child’s feelings by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE without trying to fix anything.

That requires you to remember what it was like when you were little and couldn’t do something you thought you should be able to do. This can be extremely hard if helplessness is a hot button for you.

You’ll know because instead of stopping and facilitating your child’s full experience of their feelings of frustration, you will either feel compelled to get them to try again with CAN DOs like, “Look. It’s easy. You can do this,” or you will start increasing the urgency with boundaries like, “You have to learn to do this yourself!”

This is how our hot buttons on helplessness were instilled when we were children and how we unconsciously pass them on. Kids don’t miss the message that helplessness is not OK!

When you look a little deeper, you will see that at a hot-button point for you, the feelings and fears your child is experiencing are coming up for you, too. When your child feels frustrated and helpless about a task, you feel frustrated and helpless about your child.

No wonder it’s hard to SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS) at that moment! You might even feel like you “can’t.”

Our hot buttons point us straight to our growth points.

Since our growth points are also blind spots, you can find them most easily by observing yourself after the fact:

  • Why didn’t SWYS feel right there?
  • Was I starting to feel helpless, too?
  • Could my move into CAN DOs and back to the boundary have been my way to meet my own need for power by increasing my control?

If the answer to any of those is yes, it will feel like an “Aha!” That’s the insight you need to move on.

To get to the point where you can comfortably support a child struggling with helplessness, you have to know that helplessness is just something you feel, not who you are.

When you think it’s who you are, the fear sets in. When you know it’s just a feeling, you can stay with it until it passes.

Separating “feeling” helpless from “being” helpless is breakthrough territory, and what you and the child are working on. SAYing WHAT YOU SEE without fixing anything will help you both resolve your fears because when fears are spoken, they become less real.

It could sound like this:

Child: (whining) “I can’t do it!”


SWYS: “Oh no! You wanted to do it, and you couldn’t. That’s frustrating!”


Child: (crying) “It’s too hard. I need help. You do it!”


SWYS: “You need help. Of course you do! It feels awful to try to do something and not be able to. You feel so helpless, you just want me to do it for you.”

Staying with the feelings of frustration can free up your child’s tears and help them release their fears. (See Betsy‘s post: Why I Let Kids Cry) At the same time, it sends the message that it’s OK to feel what your child feels, which would not be true if feeling helpless meant they really were helpless.

The same is true for you. Imagine hearing the same response when you are overwhelmed:

SWYS: “You need help. Of course you do! It feels awful to try to do something and not be able to. You feel so helpless, you just want somebody else to do it for you.”

Doesn’t it feel comforting? That’s SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to YOU.

As it does for your child, SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to yourself when you feel helpless will help you separate your feelings from who you are. Do that frequently enough and your fears will disappear, taking your hot button with them. It may take some time and some of your own tears, but you will eventually get there.

When you finally separate what you feel from who you are, that’s a breakthrough, and you will start to see things your blind spot previously hid from view.

For example, if asking for help has been hard for you (which it would be if you thought it proved you were helpless), then asking could suddenly show up as the best way to help yourself! That’s a complete 180º from helplessness, and the kind of shift that makes it easy to see children’s STRENGTHs even when they are whining:

STRENGTH: “You knew you needed help, and you came and asked!”

Say that to a child whining for help and watch their face light up!

Beyond that, as asking for help becomes safer and safer, your child (and you) will be able to ask for help sooner, before the frustration sets in. After all, asking for help when you want it, rather than waiting until you need it, is natural when you know you are not helpless. (See: Help Is All Around)

And a child asking pleasantly for help makes it easy to smile and say, “Sure! Show me* what you want me to do…” and reengage them from there.

* “Show me…” is one of the wonderful gifts I was given by my mentor Dr. Garry Landreth, a world-renowned play therapist, and have been sharing it with parents ever since in my Mastery Class where you master our simple coaching skills in Power Playtimes with your own child.

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