Last week, night time talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel, offered American parents a few seconds of fame in exchange for tormenting their children. He suggested that the day after Halloween parents tell their children that they ate all of their children’s Halloween candy overnight. Kimmel asked parents to film their children’s reactions and send it to him. Evidently many parents did. When informed that a parent had eaten all of their Halloween candy the majority of these young children immediately began crying.
Some children lamented the loss of their candy as they cried and asked why the parent would eat their candy. Others reacted physically, jumping up and down or throwing themselves onto the floor. One child responded that the parent didn’t know how hard she had worked to collect the candy. Some children began throwing things. A few children even struck out aggressively, verbally and physically attacking their parents. One can only imagine twenty years from now in our increasingly litigious society, one of these children, morbidly obese and pervasively dysfunctional, suing Jimmy Kimmel for planting the seeds of a chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in his or her developing brain. As anthropologist Dean Falk has pointed out, we are an emotionally driven species first and foremost. We are always hovering on the edge of disaster. We engage in a brain dance during which at any moment, even the slightest of stress can result in an explosive outburst regardless of our age. I can only imagine the reaction of older children to this prank.
One can dismiss this as a mere bit of fun or an example of children’s immature frontal lobes. Yet, not all of these children reacted so unhappily or aggressively. A small minority of children reacted with empathy, understanding and forgiveness. One child reassured his mother that it would be “okay.” Another child responded he wasn’t upset. When repeatedly asked by his parent, perhaps hoping for a more emotionally driven response, this child forgave his mother. Finally, one child responded that it would be good next year to have a plan so that they could share the candy. What Kimmel meant for entertainment provides us with an important, critical lesson about our own species. Beginning at young ages, our lives are filled with pressures and demands and immersed in a material driven culture in which the loss of a bag of candy may be reacted to traumatically. Increased stress, pressure and expectations on our children has caused an alarming increase in mental health problems, including depression, health disorders including obesity and anti-social behavior.
In the last dozen years, Dr. Bob Brooks, and I have campaigned to help professional colleagues and the general public appreciate and understand that it is not the “physical cliff” we have to worry about but the “emotional cliff.” After thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have come to realize the emotional cliff is looming. I have watched the proliferation of therapies, specialized programs, residential schools, and psychiatric medications to treat the ever increasing emotional, behavioral and developmental problems facing each successive generation. Like the proverbial anecdote of the child attempting to throw starfish back into the water one at a time as they are quickly washing up on shore, I have watched as more and more children struggle while our efforts to help fall short.
In response, I have come to appreciate that we can no longer simply build walls high enough or locks strong enough to keep the world from our children. I have come to realize that beginning at a young age children need to be stress inoculated, not by telling them their Halloween candy has been eaten, but by modeling and teaching the qualities of resilience. A resilient mindset, the ability to cope with and overcome adversity, is not a luxury or a blessing possessed by some children but an essential component for all children into the future. This belief in the significance of resilience came at a high price. As I look back on my years of clinical practice, I realize how many children suffered because well meaning parents and professionals expended time and energy to fix, even protect and insulate children rather than build assets and coping strategies.
The focus of parents, educators and mental health professionals on fixing children’s problems is not difficult to understand. I too came by this bias honestly. It is how I was trained. I was taught to identify that which is different in a negative way and prescribe interventions to reduce symptoms or problems. However, I have come to appreciate that the deficit model is fine for identifying how and why children are different and even for prescribing strategies to manage those differences. But I now believe that our primary goal must be to improve the future of all children by identifying and harnessing their strengths. A deficit model has fallen far short in helping to achieve this goal. Symptom relief has not been found to be synonymous with changing long- term outcome. I have come to appreciate that the qualities of resilience must play a central role in how we as a society prepare our children for adulthood. Resilience embraces the ability of a child to deal effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with every day challenges, to bounce back from disappointment, adversity and trauma and to develop clear and realistic goals, solve problems, relate comfortably with others and to treat one’s self and others with respect. Regardless of political, cultural, religious or scientific beliefs we must strive to raise resilient youngsters. Blaming the world around us, which we all are in fact a part of and have to some extent been responsible for shaping, as a child poisoning culture does little to relieve my ominous sense that great adversity may await our children’s futures. No child is immune in this environment. In our fast paced, stress filled world, the number of children facing adversity and the number of adversities they face continues to increase dramatically. Even children fortunate to not face significant adversity or trauma or to be burdened by intense stress or anxiety, experience this pressure around them in part due to the expectations placed upon them.
If we want to raise resilient children, we must concentrate our energies not on changing the world but rather by changing what we do with children. We must begin by appreciating that we can no longer afford the luxury of assuming that if children don’t face significant stress or adversity they will turn out “just fine.” Although the word resilient has been applied to youngsters who have overcome stress and hardship, it should be understood as a vital ingredient in the process of parenting and educating every child. We must help our children feel special and appreciated, set realistic goals and expectations, solve problems, make decisions, handle mistakes, possess a set of coping strategies such that they too can respond with empathy, understanding, forgiveness and problem solving when mommy eats all of their Halloween candy.