About a year ago, I had a nervous mother email me. Her emails sounded like many of the others I have received over the years. This was what she wrote. “My son needs help. He has zero self esteem, feels sad most of the time, very low grades… Can you help him, us?”
The next week the lanky fifteen year old boy “Daniel” and his parents sat on my couch, staring helplessly toward me. Right away, I intuitively knew I could help the disheartened young man. His dark eyes spoke their own silent language. Behind a world of stress, pressure, and unmet expectations lived a bright, capable, strong, creative teen, simply waiting to be discovered.
Much of the time, without recognizing it, parents dull and deaden the burning flame of possibility, alive and thriving within their young, growing adults. Because of societal and cultural pressures, they place unrealistic expectations on their youngsters, wanting them to rise to the top and perform, signing them up for every AP class or outside activity that supposedly will give them an extra edge on college applications. Some children are resilient and can blaze through these outside pressures without much collateral damage, however most, are extremely sensitive and these anxiety-ridden parental messages will often mirror what we get back in their teenager’s grades and behavior. Parental pressure only makes things worse, placing undo importance on results and success, while not addressing underlying issues of why the child may not be able to perform.
In the first session, I noticed the parents were subtly comparing the young man to his older brother, a much more resilient, academic child, expecting the same results from Daniel, a different student altogether. Without realizing it, they were putting him down, demanding the impossible. They told Daniel with the grades he was getting, there were no hopes of him going to college. Once I pinpointed and named what was happening, the parents became aware that they were part of the problem. In subtle ways, many parents allude to how one child may have an easier time with something than another. These subtle messages can have a direct affect on children who are already suffering from low self esteem and identity issues.
I began to work with Daniel individually. We had a nice rapport from the start. I noticed how eloquently he spoke and how emotionally mature he actually was. He reported that he couldn’t please his parents, who were always praising his older brother and that he didn’t feel motivated to do anything aside from watch Netflix and hang out with friends (who did not sound like the best influence.) His grades were clearly dropping and he had also gained quite a bit of weight. He was clearly depressed. Daniel and I met every week (I told the parents to simply back off and they happily obliged, relieved to be told what to do.) We collectively dropped some of Daniel’s more challenging classes, giving him a bit more wiggling room for getting his grades up. Following Daniel’s lead, we also began implementing a consistent workout schedule at a nearby gym.
Daniel’s workout schedule (weight lifting and cardio) became the key to him recognizing that through commitment and hard work he could see direct results. Over the course of six months, I began to notice a complete change in Daniel’s physique. He reported that if he followed his gym routine, he could get results. Daniel came into therapy consistently and we both noticed his mood slowly improving. He talked about things he was passionate about. He began connecting with different friends. He reported how much he liked some of his teachers. The more he opened up to me, the more motivated he became. The more he went to the gym, the more he saw the parallel between commitment and results.
It has been a year now since I began to see Daniel. Recently, we had our final joint session with Daniel’s parents, who couldn’t believe his progress – the mother crying with joy at her son’s transformation. Daniel was a completely different child then when he came in to see me. He was now physically fit, getting mostly A’s and reported being hopeful about his future – already researching potential colleges. In our last session Daniel left with a smile on his face, hopeful and excited about what was to come. As a psychotherapist, there is nothing more gratifying!