Stop trying to do it all yourself: family therapist says self-help only goes so far

Whether it’s yoga, mindfulness techniques or home remedies, there seems to be a DIY solution for every problem. Dalhousie professor Michael Ungar says that’s misleading. True resilience is about more than just the individual.
Rather than overprotective parenting, Da,housie professor Michael Ungar says the children become most resilient when they are exposed to manageable amounts of risk and danger in their daily lives. (Joe Brier/AP)

These days, self-help seems to be the first recommendation for fixing what ails us. 

Whether it's using mindfulness techniques to improve wellness, or rewiring our brains to help achieve a goal, the message is the same: the solution to all our problems simply lies within us, waiting to be awakened. 

Dalhousie University professor Michael Ungar says that emphasis on self-help and self-sufficiency distracts us from the bigger picture. 

Ungar holds Canada's Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience, and he said he's seen the growing movement toward self-sufficiency first hand. 

"We've really got to open this conversation," he said. "Otherwise, we slip into this dangerous territory where we think that our individual grit, our individual perseverance is all on our shoulders and our responsibility."

There's been this real push to ask people to heal themselves, and yet I [found] that we are better when the world around us makes it possible."

Ungar points to the laws, policies and societal structures that make it easier for us to achieve our goals, whether that be kicking a bad habit, picking up a new one, or simply trying to do something that seems impossible.

He argued that even the most seemingly successful proponents of the DIY movement have needed some help along the way.

Take Todd Sampson, a Canadian documentary-maker and TV presenter. Famous for his daring "body hacks", Sampson argues that by simply reprogramming our brains we can tackle any fear or overcome almost any challenge. (Sampson once climbed Mount Everest without an oxygen tank).

"Body hacker" Todd Sampson is known for stretching the limits of his own human capabilities. (Todd Sampson/ Twitter)

Ungar says although Sampson's stunts are incredible to watch, he's not actually doing them on his own. 

Take Sampson's "Houdini trick," where he wraps himself up in chains and locks and then submerges himself in a pool of water. According to Ungar, before Sampson even attempted the trick he was an incredibly accomplished athlete, had studied with a highly-trained free diver who could hold their breath for prolonged periods of time, and worked with memory specialists who helped him to memorise all the combinations of the locks.

So, while Sampson's Houdini trick may appear to be an individual feat, Ungar said it was actually the result of a concerted team effort.

Ungar says another good example of how the systems around an individual can help them overcome a traumatic event, is the story of Akiko, an 18-year-old girl who lost her entire family when a major tsunami hit their coastal hometown in Japan.

Ungar was invited to Northern Japan by some colleagues about a year and a half after the tsunami and that was where he met Akiko and other young people who had survived.

According to reports, Akiko had been in a car that was submerged by the wave, and she'd had to break its window and climb onto a nearby building to avoid drowning. Cold, wet and damp, she then stayed on that rooftop for twelve hours until she could be rescued.

Ungar said what caught his attention about Akiko's story was that after the life-changing incident, she was provided with supports to help her get back to school and continue to pursue her education.

"She found the structure [and] predictability of a world that came around her and settled her back into her community, into her peer group," he said.

Ungar said the last he heard, Akiko had stabilised, was getting her education and was living with an extended family member. 

Resilience in Canadian children

Here in Canada though, Ungar says research has shown that young children often aren't as resilient as they should be.

"We are seeing this huge spike in anxiety disorders and mood disorders and depression amongst our children in Canada, ... at the same time that all other disorders amongst children are declining."

Aside from the usual culprits -- screen time and peer pressures-- Ungar says this rise in mood disorders is likely because many parents today don't want their children to experience any risk or hardship. 

"And this becomes particularly disadvantaging to our children," he said. "What we actually want is for them to experience manageable amounts of risk and resilience, and opportunities to take responsibility for themselves." 

Even in the school system, he said he hears from educators around the country that many parents today don't want their kids to be disciplined or held accountable by school administrators.

"We're not letting them solve their own problems," he said. 

"[Then] that child gets the message that they can do bad things, and that nobody really is going to hold them accountable. And that not only creates a disordered, dysregulated child, but ultimately, I'm not sure that that child will feel as safe."

Having worked with kids in jail systems and other precarious life situations, Ungar said children actually want structure and a predictable world with boundaries 

"You're more secure when someone expects things of you [and] wants to give you genuine responsibilities for yourself and others," he said.

Ungar said parents can play a major role in encouraging resilience in their children

"So as they climb the monkey bars, rather than tell them to come down once they're about four feet up, coach them on how to hold on tighter, how to back down and keep themselves safe, how to look around and assess the dangers near them, and ultimately, to have the confidence to follow your passion."