A Guide to Overcoming Childhood Trauma

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the untruth of fragility from The Coddling of the American Mind? Why do the authors think that stress is important for emotional development? Is the modern definition of trauma being watered down?

In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff assert that young people today are too fragile. The authors think that people be antifragle and need stress and discomfort in their lives in order to grow and that these days, emotional discomfort is being wrongly labeled as trauma—leading to an overly-sensitive generation.

Here’s what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have to say about the untruth of fragility.

The Untruth of Fragility

The first of the three untruths in The Coddling of the American Mind is the untruth of fragility, or the belief that one should avoid adversity and discomfort at all costs.

This is a falsehood—stressors and risks are necessary parts of human emotional development. In this article, we’ll explore:

  • The concept of “antifragility” and how it demands that young people experience some measure of emotional adversity. 
  • How our notions of “trauma” have been watered down to encompass even mild emotional discomfort
  • How the over-emphasis on emotional safety stunts young people’s emotional and intellectual development

The Necessity of Stressors

Attempts to insulate children and young adults from danger often backfire in unexpected ways. After reported cases of peanut allergies began to rise in American children during the 1990s, schools and daycare centers adopted strict “no-peanut” rules, forbidding parents from packing them as snacks for their children, or even from packing snacks that came from a facility where peanuts might have been processed.

But studies showed that these responses to the allergy outbreak were actually its cause; by refusing to expose their children to peanuts, these overprotective parents unwittingly compromised the ability of their children’s immune systems to process the enzymes found in them.

Studies later showed that children who had had no exposure to peanuts were more likely to develop an allergy than those who had. Being exposed to small amounts of potentially dangerous substances is how our bodies learn to process them.

The same holds true of our ability to process emotional distress. We need to be exposed to stressors and setbacks in our youth in order to become emotionally secure adults.

Young people are not fragile like glass, nor are they resilient like plastic. They’re more than resilient—they are antifragile. Things that are antifragile are not only capable of withstanding stress, they actually thrive on and require it.

Safetyism and the Alleged Danger of Speech

Despite the inherently antifragile nature of young people, the people and institutions that are most responsible for their healthy development—parents, teachers, schools, universities—have actively shielded them from any form of adversity. Most worrisome, this attitude has even spread to speech itself. 

The idea has now taken root that offending speech is equivalent to physical violence. This is the logic of safetyism—the idea, increasingly accepted among students of Generation iGen (those born after 1995, discussed in greater detail shortly) that one’s emotional safety trumps all other moral concerns and trade-offs.

In this formulation, “safety” increasingly means being sheltered from opinions that you don’t agree with. Everyone is certainly entitled to physical safety and freedom from abuse—but you’re not entitled to safety from ideas.

The Social Media Natives of Generation iGen

It is unsurprising that this idea of safety is prevalent among the members of Generation iGen, who can best be described as social-media natives. In the online worlds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you truly can curate a world populated only by those who share your cultural, aesthetic, and political preferences. 

Having grown up in this digital environment, it is no wonder that Generation iGen expects it to be replicated in the real world. We see this most clearly in the demands of today’s college students for “safe spaces” where they can literally be sheltered from offending viewpoints.

In one case at Brown University, students demanded (and were given) a separate physical space on campus where they could be shielded from a debate featuring a guest speaker whose beliefs challenged some widely held views in progressive circles on the existence of rape culture in America. This was despite the fact that the students who did not wish to hear the speaker or participate in the debate also had the option of simply not attending.

These demands for safety only make sense if young people believe they are inherently fragile and will suffer genuine harm from exposure to viewpoints different from their own.

Defining Trauma

The mental health community used to have clear and objective standards for what constituted emotional “trauma.” Trauma was caused by emotionally shattering events that fell outside the bounds of normal human experience—things like rape, kidnapping, war, or torture. Events like the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship, while certainly painful, would not qualify as traumatic.

In recent years, however, some parts of the therapeutic community have begun watering down the definition of trauma to include anything that the alleged sufferer claims is emotionally harmful. In other words, the definition of trauma has gradually become more subjective, defined exclusively by one’s personal experiences.

But emotional discomfort is simply not the same as trauma. The language of trauma has escaped the bounds of the psychiatric world and made its way into spaces where it formerly had no presence, namely college classrooms. At many colleges, students claim that mere exposure to certain classroom materials is traumatic and threatens their emotional and psychological well-being.

This poisons the free discussion of ideas, which is supposed to be a hallmark of the academy. Moreover, avoidance is precisely the incorrect way to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who have experienced trauma overcome the experience by exposure therapy, in which they gradually learn to face their fears.

Through this process, they regain the fortitude needed to navigate through the trials and tribulations of ordinary life. Avoidance only instills helplessness and ensures that the patient remains defined by their traumatic experience.

Untruth #1: The Untruth of Fragility

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  • The "three Untruths" that have taken hold of young people
  • The damage that "speech codes" cause on college campuses
  • How colleges are increasingly seeing students as customers

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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