Monday, March 19 , 2018, 11:25 am | Fair 59º


Russell Collins: Will Hard Times Make Our Kids Stronger?

Sometimes, having to adapt to early challenges can build resilience and resourcefulness

Many of us are a little worried about our kids these days. We have less time to spend with them, less money to buy them things, maybe even less patience to deal calmly with their urgent needs. We are the generation of “helicopter parents,” always hovering, always there when they need us. What happens when we can’t be there?

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Highway 1. Big Sur. 1968. I had just finished my first quarter of college and felt utterly changed by it. New ideas flooded my brain as I drove home from the Bay Area, including some from psychology. Most neurotic behavior or emotional suffering, I had learned, was attributable not to moral weakness or character flaws (as the nuns had taught me), but to failures in a child’s environment — parenting failures.

At some point, I pulled over and fell asleep in the car. When I awoke, I had a long vista of the rugged coastline at sunset. About 20 feet away, set against a far-off stand of towering pines, was a little tree angled out of the side of a rocky crag, bathed in a shaft of evening light that was just then filtering through the distant ponderosas. It jutted out from the cliff and up, twisting toward the sun.

Maybe I was sleep deprived or still dreaming, but the surreally crisp image of the little pine somehow collided with my thinking about psychology, and I had an epiphany. The little tree’s difficult circumstances had caused it to grow into this beautiful, twisting shape — a passionate, creative expression of life. It was my first intuition that difficult beginnings can give shape, sometimes, to unique and wonderful living things.

I remembered the pine during my work with Carol, a 43-year-old marketing executive going through a difficult divorce, who was painfully reconstructing the details of a childhood she thought she had left behind. Her father had died suddenly when Carol was 5, plunging the family into unexpected poverty. He was a successful bank manager, but he just hadn’t planned to die so soon. Carol’s mother was overwhelmed by the task of raising three kids — probably depressed throughout much of their childhood — and Carol eventually took over as a kind of surrogate mom to her brothers.

Life was hard. As the years passed, one of Carol’s brothers — the youngest — got into neighborhood crime and substance abuse. He has been in and out of recovery ever since, and today ekes out a survival existence somewhere in Washington state. Carol, meanwhile, went east to school on a scholarship and married a boy from Connecticut, who came back with her to Santa Barbara.

What was distinctive about Carol was a poise, humor and assertiveness that so completely belied her difficult past.

“Don’t expect me to wallow in this,” she warned me early on. “I want to get through it and move forward.” Like many (though not all) therapists, I look instinctively toward a client’s childhood to uncover the sources of pain. I felt Carol’s suffering was rooted in early losses, particularly the loss of her father. But her childhood had given her something else that I couldn’t help but consider: resilience.

Like the pine tree in the mountain cleft, her early hardships had shaped her growth, focused her on getting the necessary nutrients from limited available resources — in Carol’s case, this meant the emotional sustenance of love and connection. Like the pine, Carol had stretched single-mindedly for the air and sun of her mother’s and brothers’ attention.

She had learned to charm her mom and make her laugh to bring her, at least momentarily, out of her depression. As she succeeded at this and gained confidence, she applied those abilities elsewhere, at school with her teachers, later with bosses, friends and her future husband. As an adult, she was popular and sought after, and she was genuinely loved by many for the light she brought into their lives. This is not to say she didn’t have darkness and pain. She did, but they were balanced by brightness and joy in a way that made our work together brief and effective, though some pockets of suffering remained — and will forever remain — in the shadows.

Carol’s resilience is an example of something historically overlooked by psychology. The positive side. Psychology and psychiatry are branches of medicine, and their efforts have been focused on finding cures for mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

“Getting from minus five to zero” is how psychologist Martin Seligman describes this effort. Only very recently have experimental psychologists begun to map the terrain of what Seligman, who is considered to be the “father of positive psychology,” calls “the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish.  How do we get from zero to plus five?”

Seligman’s speculation is that trends in our culture and our schools in the past 50 years have decreased resilience and increased — dramatically — the incidence of depression among kids and adults. Specifically, Seligman believes that a dearth of challenges and an excess of indulgence and attention to the development of self-esteem in our schools has resulted in an epidemic of emotional pallidness or depression.

Challenges, identification with larger causes and issues, accountability and consequences — these are things that build resilience and emotional vitality in children, according to Seligman. When challenges in a child’s environment are matched with his or her abilities and a sense that love and connection are available — even if you have to work a little for it, like Carol — it’s quite possible for kids to flourish.

Not everyone responds to tough times in childhood by becoming resilient. Seligman was the first to coin the term “learned helplessness” to describe his canine test subjects who reacted passively to pain, rather than trying to escape. Learned helplessness was acquired when the dogs experienced repeated failure as they tried to avoid an electrical shock. Carol’s brother may be an example of someone whose innate abilities were swamped by the childhood difficulties brought on by their father’s death and their mother’s depression. So, tough times can be just too tough for a child, with catastrophic results.

If it’s generally true, however, that kids and pine trees can both grow resilient and resourceful as they adapt successfully to early challenges in their environment, then the turmoil in our economy may turn out to have a benefit we never expected. It may equip our kids to live interesting and active lives. It may enable them to show determination in the face of adverse conditions and lend them courage in the face of a future that is nothing if not uncertain.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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