Category: Emotional Strength

A Strange Perspective on Strength

A number of years ago, I had two patients come into my office, one after another. The contrast between the two has remained with me for a number of years.  It helped me learn something about strength.

The first one was a young man who was tall and what we would call, “well built.” He had the size of a football player. What he didn’t have was much emotional strength.  Every time I suggested something to him as a way to cope with his problems, he had a reason not to do it. Sometimes he said that it was “too hard.”  Sometimes he complained that it would take too much effort. It quickly became clear to me that this young man was unable to face very much. Even though we would have regarded him as being strong and capable, which was true of his physical abilities, it was not true of his emotional abilities.

This become even clearer with my next patient. This was a girl who had struggled for years with a major medical problem. She had tolerated and survived many medical procedures. On the day she came to see me, she was having a spinal tap. She regarded that procedure as just something else that had to be done. I asked her how she tolerated the pain and her response was that, “it really didn’t last too long.” What a difference between these two people. He was physically strong, but had little emotional capacity to tolerate any discomfort. She was physically compromised but had the grit and tenacity to cope with the most painful of procedures.

It was interesting to me that she did not see herself as strong or brave. She just saw her treatment as what had to be done. He saw himself as being strong, and was insulted if I suggested that he had any kind of weakness.

I wish we could begin to value emotional strength. I wish we could understand how much value it has for our lives. I wish we could spend as much time and money developing this type of grit and of resilience. I also hope that we can begin to value it in others and in ourselves.

Do Your Kids Have “Grit?”

This is an important question to ask, especially at this time. Parents are asking questions about how to help their children become successful. They have tried enrolling them in many activities. They have provided them a great deal of help and support. They have constantly cheered them on. The question that Dr. Angela Duckworth asked in her research is, “Does Grit have anything to do with success?” She describes her research in her book titled Grit.

The results of her research were clear. Higher amounts of grit were associated with higher degrees of success. This was true in athletics, in academic pursuits and in careers. Grit, which she defined as perseverance and the ability to keep trying, had more impact on success than intelligence and social skills.

Grit, then, is clearly an important characteristic to foster in our children, and in fact, in ourselves. It does fly in the face of some parenting practices that emphasize having everyone being rewarded equally and where success is guaranteed in all tasks attempted. Grit focuses less on success without effort and instead focuses on the value of effort.

I have looked at children in my practice for a long time and I have noticed that the ones who have the most grit are ones who often have faced great difficulty. I remember one little girl who had significant, ongoing medical problems. To treat her condition, the doctors had to carefully monitor her health. Unfortunately, this included having frequent spinal taps. I saw her one day, before she was scheduled for a spinal tap. I expected to see a frightened child, complaining about having to have these tests. Instead, she came in with great composure and assured me that a spinal tap really wasn’t that bad because it didn’t last too long!  She said she had had to go through worse. My next patient came because he was going to have a shot and was totally disconcerted about it. He was in tears. He was yelling and complaining. He was refusing to go because he was sure it would be painful. The contrast in these two young people was amazing. She had incredible emotional strength as a result of her life experiences. He didn’t.  Who do you see as having grit, of being able to face whatever life presented?

I have been seeing a huge influx of boys in my practice who seem to lack emotional strength. Any kind of challenge, regardless of how minor it is, can defeat them. They stay home, usually protected and rescued by well-meaning parents. I have called them “Syndrome Y®” because of the group of characteristics they show. They have no motivation, no passion. They are the underachievers in school even though they are bright and capable. They do not have grit. I have described this in detail in other blogs. If you think your son may have these characteristics, you may want to consider working to increase his emotional strength. My book, The Syndrome Y Solution: Emotional Strength Building for Your Underperforming, Unmotivated and Underachieving Son, is designed to help parents build emotional strength and grit in their sons.

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The Dogsled Theory of Self-Confidence

That is not a misprint or an exaggeration! Helping your child develop a healthy self -confidence has a great deal to do with dog-sledding. One of the most grueling races in dog-sledding is the Iditarod, a race across the tundra that is almost 1200 miles long. I wanted to know how the dogs were trained to run that race and in the process I learned something about self-confidence.

We live in a time where people believe that just giving praise or positive reinforcement (whether really deserved or not) will help children develop healthy self-confidence.  This is the source of the “participation trophy” idea. It doesn’t work. Hollow praise does not build self-confidence or self worth.

The training for the puppies includes having them try to get over a log, over and over again. Then they had to walk out of the river, over uneven ground and they did this over and over. I asked the reason why because none of this seemed to relate to the dogsled race.

The trainer told me something very important. He said that he wanted his dogs to believe that there was nothing they could not get through, nothing they could not face. That is what is real self-confidence. It’s not a reward for just showing up. It is the confidence that comes from experience. From trying over and over again and sometimes failing. Then, from getting up and doing it again until you are emotionally strong enough to face what life has in store for you. That is self-confidence.

Development of self-confidence in this way is particularly important for boys.  They cannot achieve it in any other way.

What should a parent do?  You need to make sure your son has life experiences that allow him to:

  • Try himself against circumstances without your rescuing. You can think about these like logs that he needs to overcome
  • Overcome daily challenges without your help.

I had an opportunity to ride on a dogsled with a driver who had competed in the Iditarod.  He told me that as a result of that experience, he had learned to handle his life the same way. He learned to believe that he could handle circumstances, and also learned to take them one at a time. One log at a time. He learned not to be overwhelmed by many problems, but to tackle one at a time, just like he did on the trail. He learned not to worry about what was not happening, just to focus on overcoming one obstacle at a time.

Self-confidence is a result of experience, of trying things, of failing and then succeeding.

Why Are So Many of Our Children Anxious?

That’s the question my sister recently asked me.  Teens in high school now have soaring rates of anxiety.  College students now also have highly anxious and this is increasing regularly.  The question is, “Why?”

There are several reasons, and it is easy if we look at the “greatest generation” (people born between 1910-1925) for comparison.

  • People in the “greatest generation” had things they believed in. My father believed in the US Government.  He is a true “patriot” in that he believed in the fact that we were the “good guys.”   Subsequent revelations have indicated that that is not exactly true.
  • People believed in the free market system. My father worked for the same company for his whole career.  He believed that they produced the best product, had the worker’s interests at heart and that they would do “right” by the country.  Unfortunately, none of that is true.
  • People believed in the church. Recent revelations have shown that the church could not be trusted as well.
  • People believed in heroes.   My father believed that Joe Paterno and Penn State were heroes.  Unfortunately, that proved not to be true.  Sports figures?  Movie Stars?  Politicians?  There are many others we can name, but we can’t name too many people who we truly regard as heroes.  Instead, this generation has Homer Simpson and the disgraced adults in the public eye.
  • People believed that regulators would keep us safe.  Then there was Flint, and many other examples.

So the problem for children and teens becomes, who can we trust?  Who is running our world?  Some have turned to each other and found bullying emails instead.

So, are you worried yet?  You can see how our young people don’t feel that they have any security in their life.  It is the role of parents, teachers and other adults to provide safety nets for our young people.  They will need to develop their own emotional strength to deal with a very complicated world.

Addiction

In the August 13, 2016 Buffalo News, I read about Chris Maloney, a young man in his twenties who had worked to overcome his addiction to opioids.  His family supported him during that time, encouraging him to do everything possible to defeat the disease of addiction.

When he was able to be drug free, they felt that he was on his way to a successful life.  He began to pursue some of his interests, moved to a new location and entered an education program to begin his career.  He and his parents were encouraged by his progress.

Overcoming addiction and developing emotional strength are not the same.

The tragedy of this story, and of many like it, is that overcoming addiction and developing emotional strength are not the same. This young man had overcome his addiction but was not strong enough to move fully into his potential. Moving to a new city, facing educational challenges and dealing with the demands of everyday life overcame him. The steps were too big for him to handle. Just like we would not expect someone after major surgery to go directly into a full exercise program, we cannot expect addicted young people to face all of life’s challenges at once when they are drug free. We need to take the time to build emotional strength.  Sadly, this young man relapsed, overdosed and died. Sadder yet, is the fact that he is one of many.

After addiction, people must build emotional strength

Emotional strength is needed to overcome addiction. However, the strength to deal with daily frustrations, to face challenges, to take responsibility for one’s own life and to deal with complicated social situations is really the “heavy lifting” of living.  For some people, it is the pace or the seeming relentlessness of demands that are the most wearing and tiring. We have to build up the necessary emotional strength to face all these challenges.

It is important for us to develop support systems that have a long-term focus. Emotional strength building takes time. Public policy positions now tend to favor quick fixes and many of the programs and supports we need are not yet widely available. This is a double tragedy for families and those caught in the trap of substance abuse.

Careful goal setting is crucial

For many families, the goal is that their loved one gets “clean.” I agree that that is part of the goal. It is not enough. What our goal should be is that the person becomes able to function in life. This takes longer, many times, than the actual overcoming of addiction. Here is a list of what needs to be learned:

  1. The former user needs to learn to tolerate the stressors that led to the avoidance found in substance abuse. They need to face their own personal “demons.”
  2. They need to learn that there are no easy ways to live. Life is filled with challenges and no shortcuts.
  3. If life’s challenges were one-time events, users and ex-users would be better off. However, life is filled with ongoing challenges—rent needs to be paid each month, cars need numerous repairs. It just goes on and on. Ex-users have to be strong enough to take care of these things over and over.

If someone you know is fighting addiction

  • Remember that emotional strength is the goal.
  • It can be reached, but it takes time. There are no shortcuts.
  • It is important to remember that people can change and grow.
  • But, you cannot do it for them. Just like you cannot help them develop physical strength by going to the gym for them, you cannot help them develop emotional strength. It is their task to do.

Syndrome Y®

“He doesn’t do homework!!” That’s what I hear so often from frustrated parents.  They tell me their son’s are bright, and have had success in school in elementary grades. But now, in middle school or high school, the potential that you saw in him is missing. You have become totally frustrated with his lack of effort and his lack of passion. You have tried everything to try to get him motivated. You have threatened, promised, negotiated with and punished, but none of these have been successful. Your son may have Syndrome Y®.

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I have identified a group of young men (and young adults) who show the characteristics of Syndrome Y®.  They are bright and academically capable but do no homework. Their lives are occupied by video games. Their outside interests are very limited. They have few goals and no motivation. Nothing seems to work to get them moving along the road to independence.

There are five characteristics that I have found with these young men:

  • They use Avoidance as their primary problem solving strategy.
  • They dislike having any Demands made on them. If it is not on their agenda, it doesn’t get done.
  • They become Dependent.
  • They need Immediate Gratification.
  • They have problems with the appropriate expression of Anger. They get very angry and difficult at home, but are passive and not assertive in other settings.

These young men’s symptoms are frustrating for parents and school personnel. Traditional methods don’t work.  Reward and punishment are ineffective. Often, these young men disrupt home life.

Some young men show mild symptoms, but others are significantly impaired. Many, as they grow into young adulthood are unable to leave home, don’t work and often fail at college attempts.  Some manage to avoid life’s challenges by using drugs or alcohol.  It is such a waste of the lives of these talented and engaging young men.

The treatment is to realize that these young men have some fundamental anxiety, but more importantly, they lack emotional strength. They often have the knowledge that is necessary, but not the emotional strength. They have not (because of their avoidance) had the opportunity to learn how to face challenges, how to build up their emotional fortitude in small ways over time. Instead, many have been rescued, “helped,” or indulged so they can be happy. It is just like physical strength. If you don’t use it, you get weaker. These young men have not used their emotional strength and just when they need it the most, just when life expects them to begin to function independently, they just don’t have the strength.

What is a parent to do?  The reason your previous attempts haven’t worked is because you have not addressed the underlying problem, the lack of emotional strength.  Decide today to begin on an emotional strength building program for your son.  It is a long term process, but it is the only way he will be able to function independently in our world.  You will be able to read more about this program.  I have outlined it in detail in my book, The Syndrome Y Solution:  Emotional Strength Building for your Underperforming, Unmotivated, Underachieving Son. The book will be available in January 2017.

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The first step is to change your mindset. Your goal is not to make your son “happy,” your goal is to make him strong.  Start today watching yourself, finding the times that you rescue or help him out.  Step back and let him function himself.  Start with SMALL Steps.  Remember, this is like physical strength, and he will not be able to bench press 500 pounds with one trip to the gym.  It is far better to step back in small ways and let him begin to develop his emotional strength.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Make him order his own meal if you go out for dinner.
  • Don’t get his things ready for him for school or if he is going somewhere
  • Don’t get snacks for him. Let him get them himself.
  • Let him go in and buy the extra gallon of milk you need.

He is perfectly capable of doing all of these things. He just doesn’t want to. Be ready.  He will not be happy with this plan.  But, it is the only way for him to begin to develop emotional strength.