Dr. Mona Knows: What do we Want from Our Children?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Did you see the article in the Sunday, August 5, 2007 New York Times, front page entitled "Young Athletes Try New Coach: Psychologist"? It tells of the growing dependence by young athletes on not only skill coaches, consultants, and nutritionists, but now also on mental coaches to overcome fears, pressures and phobias. Do we approve of this? What does it actually mean?

Let's try to understand what having a phobia may mean. A phobia is a specific fear or, more to the point, an intense specific fear that one will emphatically avoid. It is actually an extension of a generalized anxiety disorder that has taken on a very specific focus. And if one is spending time and mental energy focusing on one fear isn't it possible that we are actually distracting ourselves from another fear? For instance, a fear of social situations might well serve to keep us away from interacting with others and possibly being rejected or hurt by them? In effect, we steer clear of one pain to avoid another.

So, if these young athletes develop phobias that in some way effect their performance, isn't it possible that they're saying, "I am not sure I want to perform anymore." We need to listen to these symptoms for messages and meanings that may not be superficially apparent.

Now, I certainly would not want to deny possible psychological reasons for anxiety nor would I want to discourage anyone's search for mental peace or understanding. In fact, the article quotes many wise sports psychologists and is very clear about presenting many potential and real issues that the sport psychologists work on with their young patients. These can encompass everything from "keeping up the Joneses" or other young athletes to parental fantasies of success or even parent-coach-child triangles. And as Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, says in the article, "Learning to concentrate, to relax and have confidence, to deal with frustration, to set goals and stay focused on the task at hand, these are life skills."

But, if the issues are more profound and if the issues are actually those of someone other than the child, we need to listen carefully and to ask another question. Perhaps even unbeknownst to the child, there is an uncertainty that goes beyond the sport.

Haven't we all talked about and accepted other forms of rebellion in our children? We understand when a child begins to reject the lifestyle of the parent. We understand when the child becomes difficult. We watch in wonderment and sometimes with distress as a child asserts independence and develops an identity of their own. We laugh or cry, but we always label it as the normal beginning of the teenage years. We know that this is an important part of childhood development and a required stage in the path to adulthood. But it is a stage filled with conflicts, rebellions and confusion: Who am I? Do I have to be what they want me to be?

Could this be what is happening to the young athlete? Could the new phobia or fear that seemed to require mental coaching be a distraction from another core hesitation or uncertainty? Couldn't these children be rebelling from what was once expected of them -- the kid they used to be? Couldn't they be wanting to establish a new identity? Couldn't they be questioning their own interests? Perhaps the real challenge is not how to get through the phobia or the symptom, but to determine if the emerging adult is actually still interested in the sport -- not to mention excelling in it.

Let's listen to the child. Let's help him to find out about himself. And in the meantime let's be clear about the needs of the adult.

I am always fearful that we are raising a generation that thinks it's destined for upper management -- all generals, no privates. The striving for success, the setting of the bar as a high as possible, is bound to prove disappointing. (In any sport, as in life itself, there are few winners-and lots of losers.) We can expect too much from our children. They could not possibly be satisfied with anything less than the top positions. They could not be satisfied with simple, meaningful, good lives. They need the highs of winning. They see anything less as failure. And then they question their happiness. Is this fair? Is this the right lesson? What do we actually want from our children?

Let's listen to their phobias not as something to get through in order to continue to succeed.

Let's hear it for what it might be: the silent scream to quit and become someone else.