I have a habit of––whenever my kids eat food they’ve dropped on the floor––saying, “No Crohn’s disease for you!” In the last decade there have been plenty of studies out there which indicate that young humans who have too clean an environment don’t have very well-trained immune systems and get sick more often. Not eating enough dirt can even lead to autoimmune diseases. The body has nothing to fight, so it starts fighting itself. Also, over-cleanliness kills all the good organisms in our bodies that help keep us healthy. This theory is called the Hygiene Hypothesis.
This whole problem is itself a paradox, no? You douse your kids in hand sanitizer every half hour (or every 30 seconds if you’re on the subway in February) hoping they won’t get sick. It’s well-intentioned. But an immune system that has seen very little action gets bored and too much cleanness can end up actually making kids sick. Like, really sick. Life-long struggle sick. Secondly, an inexperienced immune system is unlikely to have any clue how to fight illness when it does come (and it will). This is a major backfire situation. What was meant for good turns out to be harmful.
For the last few years I have been wondering how this theory may have some psychosocial implications. I’ve been thinking, Maybe there is such a thing as the Mental Hygiene Hypothesis. When humans don’t face struggle and troubling situations because someone (maybe oneself) is trying to protect them, what happens? When trouble comes (and it will), these people have little to no tools in their emotional/mental tool belts. They reach for a memory of “this is what helped me last time I faced this situation” and they turn up empty-handed. They reach for “this is what my parents helped me integrate when I was young when this kind of struggle comes” and they’ve got diddly with a side of squat.
Here’s another analogy that relates to this: When a muscle in your body experiences no resistance, what happens to it? (I think you see where I’m going with this.) It atrophies! It's too weak to use until it is built up.
So here’s a question:
Even when we mean well, is protecting ourselves and others (especially kids) from struggle actually helpful, or is it depriving us and them of opportunities to learn the necessary skills and strengths that can only develop when there is resistance? Is our mental/emotional/spiritual immune system, as it were, left to fight only itself?
Just when I thought I had a grand, original idea that I could share with the world, I received an email from someone with an article attached to it. “I thought you’d enjoy this,” it said. The article was from The Atlantic and it was called, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” written by Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in 2011. (Click the title of the article if you'd like to read it.)
It was a long read, and every sentence was great. As I read it, I started gasping and groaning out-loud. This was my mental hygiene hypothesis!
“Many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment...with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”
It excited me that someone who’s been practicing (psychotherapy and mothering) longer than I have was thinking near-identical thoughts. This was a truly wonderful article, one of those that you pass along to all your friends and colleagues.
Gottlieb introduced a helpful question I had not yet considered: When thinking about why parents protect their children from emotional pain, we have to ask the hard question of who are they most trying to protect––the child or themselves? For me personally, it is infinitely more painful for me to watch my child climb a massive twisty ladder at the playground than it is for her to climb it. The chance of me experiencing fear while watching her climb: 100%. The chance of her falling off: probably 10% or less.
So is there any solution for this mental hygiene problem? How do we help ourselves and others become resilient, healthy copers? How do we become people who conquer difficult situations instead of running away or avoiding them altogether?
Here are some of my thoughts. And these three points build on each other...
- We have to get our hands dirty.
For instance, with the playground scenario I just listed above, how can I get psychologically “dirty” even when I imagine my kids will get fatally injured (and probably won’t)? I have a friend who says, “Your kids are going to do things that terrify you whether or not you watch, so you might as well close your eyes.” Too true. Instead of letting my anxiety stop my kids from learning how to be proficient climbers (and therefore much safer overall), I need to bite the bullet. The mind bullet, that is. I need to make myself okay with this, do some good self-talk (“She probably won’t fall…”), and then tell her she’s awesome when she gets to the top.
- We have to let our kids get their hands dirty.
Doing work on point one makes point two easier. I am obviously not saying we should create scenarios that cause our children pain to "toughen them up." (That's called abuse.) Life naturally offers plenty of difficulty. We don't need to make opportunities for our kids to struggle, we just need to stop stopping them. Here’s an excerpt from Gottlieb’s article that helps us understand this point…
"Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Paul Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.”
`Nuff said. Still, easier said than done. But important!
- When we talk about difficult experiences with others, it helps us integrate our ability to overcome them.
A really helpful book that has taught me about this point is The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. This book is not just about children it’s about every human, since we are all––as the poet John O’Donohue once said––“ex-babies.” All of our minds have developed certain ways whether we like it or not. This book helps us understand methods for healthy development which leads to greater integration between our thoughts & feelings. That’s just a long way of saying, Talking about our thoughts and feelings when something bad happens to us makes us stronger, healthier people. Despite some people’s belief, a hurting child who is told, “Don’t cry, you’re fine!” or “Get used to it, this is what life feels like” does not, in fact, become stronger. This may be an uncomfortable lesson to learn if you yourself are not familiar with talking about your feelings, but I can tell you from experience it is a very worthwhile one.
Food for further thought: Think honestly about some of the ways you protect yourself and/or others from struggle. In what ways has struggle taught you about your substance/strength and made you the person that you are today? What is one way you can face struggle in a healthier way today?