Martorella: Tough enough

Dear Readers —

I consider it a privilege to have this space to connect with you, and I have never used it to promote my own agenda, so I hope you can indulge me just this once. Last week, the Darien Times reported on the approval to expand Fitch Academy, the new alternative high school program currently located at Darien Library. The editorial in that same issue addressed the comments of some who expressed doubts about the need for this program, who thought maybe these “anxious” kids should just “toughen up”.

I probably would have used the editorial as a launching pad to write about this topic no matter what, but as the parent of a Fitch Academy student, I had to speak out. I am not exaggerating when I say that Fitch Academy has been a lifesaver for my child and my family.

The editorial called the “toughen up” comments “at the least…insensitive and at the worst… cruel” but honestly, they neither offended nor surprised me. We heard similar phrases from our family and friends, and may have even uttered them ourselves, when our child first started complaining about the overwhelming experience in middle school. It started softly with “hang in there” or “you’ll be fine,” but increased in intensity to “Toughen up!” and “Get over it!” as the passing years brought ever-increasing levels of frustration and helplessness. After all, these kids need to learn to deal with the tough stuff, right?

In recent years, the dialogue around “helicopter parenting” and overprotected, “entitled” children who need constant praise and hand-holding has fostered the idea that we have created a “coddled” generation.

Of course, there is also substantial evidence that our current culture, which emphasizes over-the-top academic and athletic achievement, frowns on downtime, and facilitates the heavy use of technology and social media among our teenagers, is leading to major increases in the levels of anxiety and depression in our children. But somehow we look for the children to change, rather than reconsidering the environmental shifts. Instead of society returning to a slower-paced, perhaps less “convenient” and “connected” time, more and more children are getting mental health evaluations, treatment, and medication to help them “toughen up”.

I also appreciate the difficulty in understanding a program that isn’t specifically geared towards a certain diagnosis or learning disorder. “Anxiety” is a nebulous term and a pervasive affliction. Don’t we all have anxieties? Isn’t high school hard for everyone? It doesn’t seem like the basis for a separate program. And it isn’t, really. The students currently in the pilot program at Fitch don’t all suffer from anxiety. There are a variety of reasons that the traditional DHS environment is difficult for them and why they would benefit from a different setting.

It is important to note that many of these students have spent years trying to “tough it out,” some performing as model students while developing unhealthy coping skills and compulsive behaviors to manage their stress and hide their struggle. Some were frozen by their own perfectionistic tendencies which muddled perspective and priorities. Some hesitated to engage socially or pursue their interests. Many exhausted themselves and strained family relationships with worries that defied any and all logical solutions.

Fitch Academy has enabled these children to learn again. Students who were up all night doing and redoing assignments that “weren’t good enough” are now completing excellent work within school hours. Students who were refusing to get on the bus or in the car are now eagerly heading to school every day. Students who were disengaged socially are now learning from each other and creating their own community, and they don’t have to leave town to do it.

Darien High School consistently ranks as one of the top schools in the state, even the country, but that does not mean it is a good learning environment for everyone. As Darien taxpayers, we support the beautiful DHS campus and all of its facilities for the students who thrive there, and we would hope all in the community would help support Fitch Academy for those who may not.

Personally, my family has felt nothing but support from residents when we share our Fitch story (which is often), and we are grateful to Superintendent Dan Brenner, Lynda Sorensen, Eileen Whalen, the Fitch Academy faculty, the Darien Board of Education, and all others who helped    identify this need and construct a solution.

I hope any doubters now understand that this is not a program for weak children who need coddling, but rather for children who have had to be strong beyond their years to persevere through often invisible obstacles and are now finally getting support.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]