Trophy kids in therapy

Parents who protect their children from frustration and disappointment, who turn every failure into “good try!” and every routine task into “great job!,” who devote themselves to making their children happy all the time are raising empty, confused, anxious, unhappy young adults who can’t deal with the normal frustrations of life, writes therapist Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic.

Patients in their 20s or early 30s  report depression, anxiety,  difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, poor relationships, a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose — and loving, caring, endlessly supportive parents who are “my best friends in the whole world” and “always there for me.”

Since the 1980s, self-esteem has risen in tandem with rates of anxiety and depression, says Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

“Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are.”

. . . In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. . . . They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right—they don’t.”

Instead of learning to face frustration at the age if six, when a better soccer team wins the game, overprotected kids face it for the first time in college, says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And that’s only if Mom and Dad don’t swoop in to save the day.

Parents refuse to believe their children might be average, Mogel says. “Every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both.” Parents prefer a learning-disability diagnosis to the possibility their child just isn’t all that smart. “They believe that ‘average’ is bad for self-esteem.” (A friend who was a school psychologist in an affluent suburb told me the exact same thing.)

Self-esteem doesn’t predict happiness, writes Gottlieb, “especially if the self-esteem comes from constant accommodation and praise rather than earned accomplishment.” Perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing are better predictors of fulfillment and success.

It makes me feel thankful I wasn’t that nice to my kid. Her father and I made a habit of singing “You can’t always get what you want” to her when she confused her desires with reality.