2010-05-07 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

A Tough Childhood Can Lead to Success Later in Life

Question: Do childhood traumas inevitably twist and warp a person in the adult years?

Dr. Dobson: No. It is well known that difficult childhoods leave some people wounded and disadvantaged, but for others, they fuel great achievement and success. The difference appears to be a function of individual temperamentsand resourcefulness.

In a classic study called “Cradles of Eminence,” Victor and Mildred Goertzel investigated the home backgrounds of three hundred highly successful people. The researchers sought to identify the early experiences that may have contributed to remarkable achievement. All of the subjects were well known for their accomplishments; they included Einstein, Freud, Churchill and many others.

The backgrounds of these people proved very interesting. Three-fourths of them came from troubled childhoods, enduring poverty, broken homes or parental abuse. One-fourth had physical handicaps. Most of those who became writers and playwrights had watched their own parents embroiled in psychological dramas of one sort or another. The researchers concluded that the need to compensate for disadvantages was a major factor in the drive toward personal achievement.

One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is seen in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, a former first lady. Being orphaned at ten, she underwent a childhood of utter anguish. She was very homely and never felt she really belonged to anybody. According to Victor Wilson, Newhouse News Service, “She was a rather humorless introvert, a young woman unbelievably shy, unable to overcome her personal insecurity and with a conviction of her own inadequacy.” The world knows, however, that Mrs. Roosevelt rose above her emotional shackles. As Wilson said,”...From some inner wellspring, Mrs. Roosevelt summoned a tough, unyielding courage, tempered by remarkable self-control and self-discipline...” That “inner wellspring” has another appropriate name: compensation!

Obviously, one’s attitude toward a handicap determines its impact on one’s life. It has become popular to blame adverse circumstances for irresponsible behavior (e.g., poverty causes crime, broken homes produce juvenile delinquents, a sick society imposes drug addiction on its youth). There is some truth in this assumption, since people in those difficult circumstances are more likely to behave in destructive ways. But they are not forced to do so. To say that adverse conditions cause irresponsible behavior is to remove all responsibility from the shoulders of the individual. The excuse is hollow. We must each decide what we will do with inner doubt and outer hardship.

The application to an individual family should be obvious. If a child has gone through a traumatic experience or is physically disadvantaged, his or her parents need not give up hope. They should identify his or her strengths and natural abilities, which can be used to overcome the hurdle. The problem that seems so formidable today may become the inspiration for greatness tomorrow.

Question: We have a five-yearold son who has been diagnosed with ADHD. He is really difficult to handle, and I have no idea how to manage him. I know he has a neurological problem; I don’t feel right about making him obey like we do our other children. It is a big problem for us. What do you suggest?

Dr. Dobson: I understand your dilemma, but I urge you to discipline your son. Every youngster needs the security of defined limits, and the ADHD boy or girl is no exception. Such a child should be held responsible for his or her behavior, although the approach may be a little different. For example, most children can be required to sit on a chair for disciplinary reasons, whereas some very hyperactive children would not be able to remain there. Similarly, corporal punishment is sometimes ineffective with a highly excitable little bundle of electricity. As with every aspect of parenthood, disciplinary measures for the ADHD child must be suited to his or her unique characteristics and needs.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995

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