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Opinion & Essays - Nov, 2000 Issue #75 

By Lon Woodbury 

I work with parents of children having problems severe enough to need residential placement. In my 16 years experience, the almost universal attitude of these children is a very low, or a very negative, sense of self-confidence.

The other extremely common attitude of children needing residential placement is a distorted or non-existent grasp of the concept of cause and effect. They don’t understand the consequences of their actions. When they fail at something, or get a negative reaction to something they do, they either don’t have a clue as to why, or they make the wrong connection about what created the result.

What can we learn, or conclude, from the extremely common existence of these two attitudes among children in residential placement?

First, contrary to the so-called “self-esteem” movement, self- confidence is largely built through success in overcoming real challenges. Confidence doesn’t come from the externally generated accolades, or expressions of praise, as many of the proponents of the “self-esteem” movement seem to contend. Instead, it develops as a result of the child’s internal knowledge that he/she succeeded in a task where failure was a real possibility. This is an important element in what is called emotional growth, which is children’s primary “work” at that phase of their life.

A necessary part of emotional growth is to learn how to experience failure. This is vital for learning how to live and handle life’s challenges. If a child never fails at anything, then he/she is unable to appreciate that success takes work, focus, skill, persistence, etc. Of course it is important that failure be followed by support, understanding and encouragement to continue trying, because this solidifies the emotional growth a child needs to do in order to become a successfully functioning adult.

Also, we need to realize that in order for an experience to be meaningful and to result in emotional growth, it must contain an element of risk. It is important to note, however, that when orchestrating emotional growth work for a child, “perceived” risk has the same benefit as “dangerous” risk, so it is not necessary to actually place a child in harm’s way. Actually, we have to keep any evaluation of a school or program’s safety record in perspective with the level of risk these children were taking prior to being admitted to the program.

The existence of large numbers of children needing residential placement suggests the existence of another factor that contributes to this situation as well. The fairly common tendency of many parents and adults in general, to in effect deprive children of opportunities to gain self-confidence and a concept of cause and effect contributes to the reason children now are in residential placement. Parents are probably acting from a desire to protect their children from what they perceive as the pain of failure and the danger of any kind of risk.

When a parent or society protects a child from the risk of failure, the child is unable to learn how to overcome challenges, doesn’t learn the effects of their actions, and consequently has little ability to develop a healthy sense of self-confidence. This suggests we need to rethink our ways of parenting and raising children.

The almost universal existence of kids in residential programs who have low self-confidence and lack any comprehension about the relationship between cause and effect suggests that structure is probably the most important element for any school or program to be successful. In order to provide structure, the school or program must provide consequences that are immediate and appropriate. Therapy and treatment, of course, is very important to the healing of many children. However for many children, the most effective way to deal with their behavioral and emotional problems is to provide a structure that allows them to risk failure, learn what success requires, and overcome real challenges. Even those with a pathology who need treatment, also need experiences that foster emotional growth. Emotional growth occurs as children learn from failure and experience the success that comes from overcoming perceived risk. Their self-confidence increases as they develop a good grasp of the relationship between cause and effect.

There seems to be a growing number of children in our society who are self-destructing to the point of needing residential placement. The network of people and programs that I have been working with and describe in my newsletter seem to have effective approaches to these issues. Their philosophy and experience that dictates how they work with struggling teens might also contain the answers for all parents dealing with teens who are having trouble growing up.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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