Perceiving children as psychologically fragile is a quintessentially modern concept. In ancient times, children were considered miniature adults, fully formed from birth. For most of Western civilization, children were regarded as innately evil. The job of parents and caregivers was to enforce extreme discipline in order to socialize them to live in the world. It was entirely acceptable to use corporal punishment and fear tactics to get a child to behave. No longer.
Today, many parents I see are terrified of doing or saying something that will leave their child with an emotional scar, thereby setting them up, so the thinking goes, for emotional suffering and even mental illness in later life.
This notion can be traced to Freud, whose groundbreaking psychoanalytic contribution was that early childhood experiences, even those long forgotten or outside of conscious awareness, can cause lasting psychological damage. Unfortunately, Freud’s insight that early childhood trauma can influence adult psychopathology has morphed into the conviction that any and every challenging experience primes us for the psychotherapy couch.
Our efforts to insulate our children from adverse psychological experiences play out not just in the home but also in school. At the primary school level, every child receives some equivalent of the “Star of the Week” award—not for any particular accomplishment but in alphabetical order. Every child is taught to be on the lookout for bullies lest they become bystanders instead of upstanders. At the university level, faculty and students talk about triggers and safe spaces.
That parenting and education are informed by developmental psychology and empathy is a positive evolution. We should acknowledge every person’s worth independent of achievement, stop physical and emotional brutality on the schoolyard and everywhere else, and create safe spaces to think, learn, and discuss.
But I worry that we have both oversanitized and overpathologized childhood, raising our children in the equivalent of a padded cell, with no way to injure themselves but also no means to ready themselves for the world. By protecting our children from adversity, have we made them
Messages exhorting us to pursue happiness are not limited to the realm of psychology. Modern religion too promotes a theology of self- awareness, self-expression, and self-realization as the highest good. In his book Bad Religion, writer and religious scholar Ross Douthat describes our New Age “God Within” theology as “a faith that’s at once cosmopolitan and comforting, promising all the pleasures of exoticism... without any of the pain... a mystical pantheism, in which God is an experience rather than a person... . It’s startling how little moral exhortation there is in the pages of the God Within literature. There are frequent calls to ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness,’ but little guidance for people facing actual dilemmas. And what guidance there is often amounts to ‘if it feels good, do it.’”
David attributed fatigue and inattentiveness to a mental illness rather than to sleep deprivation and overstimulation, a logic he used to justify continued use of pills. I’ve seen a similar paradox in many of my patients over the years: They use drugs, prescribed or otherwise, to compensate for a basic lack of self-care, then attribute the costs to a mental illness, thus necessitating the need for more drugs. Hence poisons become vitamins.
Dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter involved in reward processing, but most neuroscientists agree it is among the most important. Dopamine may play a bigger role in the motivation to get a reward than the pleasure of the reward itself. Wanting more than liking. Genetically engineered mice unable to make dopamine will not seek out food, and will starve to death even when food is placed just inches from their mouth. Yet if food is put directly into their mouth, they will chew and eat the food, and seem to enjoy it.
The phylogenetically uber-ancient neurological machinery for processing pleasure and pain has remained largely intact throughout evolution and across species. It is perfectly adapted for a world of scarcity. Without pleasure we wouldn’t eat, drink, or reproduce. Without pain we wouldn’t protect ourselves from injury and death. By raising our neural set point with repeated pleasures, we become endless strivers, never satisfied with what we have, always looking for more. But herein lies the problem. Human beings, the ultimate seekers, have responded too well to the challenge of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. As a result, we’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance. Our brains are not evolved for this world of plenty. As Dr. Tom Finucane, who studies diabetes in the setting of chronic sedentary feeding, said, “We are cacti in the rain forest.” And like cacti adapted to an arid climate, we are drowning in dopamine. The net effect is that we now need more reward to feel pleasure, and less injury to feel pain. This recalibration is occurring not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of nations. Which invites the question: How do we survive and thrive in this new ecosystem?
Despite substantial increases in funding in four high-resourced countries (Australia, Canada, England, and the US) for psychiatric medications like antidepressants (Prozac), anxiolytics (Xanax), and hypnotics (Ambien), the prevalence of mood and anxiety symptoms in these countries has not decreased (1990 to 2015). These findings persist even when controlling for increases in risk factors for mental illness, such as poverty and trauma, and even when studying severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia.