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Why You Shouldn't Coddle Your Kids

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 11/8/2018 Robin Berman, M.D.

Mother helping daughter with homework: Kids are going to struggle sometimes, whether it be with homework or relationships. While some guidance can be helpful, it's important that children and adolescents tackle challenges on their own, and that they're allowed to fail and not protected from feeling disappointment. © (Getty Images) Kids are going to struggle sometimes, whether it be with homework or relationships. While some guidance can be helpful, it's important that children and adolescents tackle challenges on their own, and that they're allowed to fail and not protected from feeling disappointment. On the first day of medical school, we learned the Hippocratic oath: “Above all, do no harm.” The same mantra should be applied to parenting.

Unfortunately, the incredibly well-intentioned helicopter parenting of the recent generation has been a bust. Rates of anxiety and depression in young adults are at an all-time high, while resiliency and capacity to tolerate emotional distress are at an all-time low. Parents who tried to protect their children from failing or feeling disappointment, and always rushed in to solve problems, robbed their children of an opportunity to practice distress tolerance and problem solving on their own. I have personally seen the fallout from this.

I have been training medical residents for the past 15 years, and I have noticed a shift in how open they are to receiving constructive feedback. While the recent crop of residents that I work with are bright, dedicated and motivated, some of them seem to be under the assumption that they should know everything.

An example was when a resident reported back to me after taking a history on a woman with postpartum depression. He concluded that the patient was “stable and doing well.” When I met with the patient, I saw subtle signs that the resident had missed. She was far from stable, and was showing early signs of psychosis (which can take years of experience to detect). I suggested we consider keeping a very close eye on his patient, modifying her medication and even think about hospitalization. “I think the patient is stable and doing great. We will have to agree to disagree,” he said. I was stunned. I had expected him to be curious about my diagnosis and ask why I thought the patient was beginning to break with reality. While he ultimately deferred to my diagnosis and treatment plan, I was struck by his sense of needing to appear that he knew everything, when of course he shouldn’t as a training resident.

Even experienced doctors are lifelong learners. We constantly adjust our approach to patient care based on new research and scientific breakthroughs along with wisdom we glean from our patients and colleagues. Good doctors are collaborative. We welcome feedback because we learn from each other.

In contrast, this generation of helicopter kids has been raised to value competition over collaboration. Hang out at any youth sports game and you will see parents loudly coaching on the sidelines, trying to manufacture the all-mighty win for an 8-year-old soccer player. I can’t track when it happened, but parental thinking has become linear: “If my child learns to win on the field, he will win himself admission to Yale.”

The fact is that childhood isn’t linear. It is the twists and turns, failures and falls that become our biggest teachable moments. How we manage discomfort becomes a pivotal gateway to real self-esteem. An important part of mental health is tolerating discomfort and sitting with uncertainty.

Today’s young adults are the most coddled and protected of any progeny. It’s no surprise to me that they are also the most anxious generation in our nation’s history. In my field, the gold standard for treating anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy. One of its treatment arms is exposure therapy, which helps to increase tolerance to distress. Ironically, these young super achievers, who were buckled into the trajectory of perfection at an early age, could have developed tolerance to distress if they had been allowed to be imperfect children.

In medicine, the process to move from diagnosis to treatment is never linear; it requires psychological flexibility. Good doctors must be open to new input, comfortable evaluating information from multiple and sometimes conflicting sources, and understand the art of connecting with their patients. 

I watched a patient tell a resident about her father’s recent death. She began to sob, but the resident kept typing notes instead of offering a soothing comment or just giving the patient a tissue. The resident was following protocol and being meticulous about getting all the information into the computer – but in this case, flexibility was called for.

Don’t get me wrong. These residents are some of the best and brightest in the nation, and with experience they will be great physicians. But they have to learn that connecting with a patient is far more healing than logging all the right data into the system. Having practice in detouring and veering off the path is something that our children are missing when the road is always smooth.

As parents, as uncomfortable as it is for us, we need to let our children sit in their discomfort, fall, fail and get back up on their own – without being rescued from the very life experiences that give them emotional resiliency. Enlisting our kids in too many structured activities and having coaches and tutors guiding kids every step of the way does more than protect a child from failing. It prevents them from learning by trial and error and experiencing discomfort and frustration. Think about the long-term benefits of working through adversity.

It is painful for parents, but kids need to struggle. In the natural world, if a mother chicken attempts to break her baby chick out her shell, the baby chick dies. It’s a less dire consequence in the human environment, but struggle creates strength and develops actual self-agency – kids learn that they can work through tough things on their own.

I stepped down this fall from my 15-year teaching position, and I am teaching a new class called "The Art of Connecting to Patients." We discuss the fundamental role of curiosity, humility, trial-and-error learning and, above all, connection. We learn why continuing to ask questions and admitting we don’t know all the answers and having compassion are vital to being good physicians – just as these skills are critical for all developing kids and adults. So far, I’ve not had one resident tell me, “We should agree to disagree."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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