Navigator’s Interview with Dr. Warshak on
Heroes, Trauma, and Children
Published 2002 in Navigator by The Atlas Society
A clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center with twenty years of experience in treating trauma victims, Richard Warshak will present "Heroes, Trauma, and Children" to the 2002 TOC summer seminar. Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex, of The Custody Revolution, and of a forthcoming book on heroes and children.
In 1998, he delivered a talk to the summer seminar entitled "One Dark (K)night: Trauma, Sense of Life and the Origin of a Superhero."
Q: Logbook: How did you first become interested in trauma?
A: Warshak: As an outgrowth of my divorce research, my office practice included many adults and children who were suffering the losses that accompany divorce. Over time, my practice expanded to include people who were suffering other types of losses, including horrible injuries, catastrophes, and untimely deaths of loved ones. To learn more about the impact of trauma, I organized two workshops on the topic with nationally prominent experts and read everything I could find on the topic. I became intrigued with phenomena I have come to call "echoes of trauma." You can detect shadows of trauma behind various disguises if you know what to look for.
Q: Logbook: Many psychologists, when discussing the impact of trauma, convey a wholly negative view. Is that a perspective you share?
A: Warshak: No. When psychologists set out to study something like the impact of trauma, the type of questions they ask defines the range of answers they will find. Early students of trauma were concerned about trauma's negative effects and, not surprisingly, that is what they learned about. More recent studies have searched for positive outcomes of trauma and have learned what novelists and historians have known for generations: Many people draw strength from adversity. They take inspiration from their suffering. They transcend their traumas and become better people.
Q: Logbook: Where do heroes come into the picture?
A: Warshak: If you understand the impact of trauma, it becomes easier to understand the crucial role heroes play in transcending trauma and tragedy. The events of 9/11 allowed the celebration of heroism—which I believe is an essential good of a moral society—to step through the cynical curtain of the past half century, a period that dismissed talk of heroes and hero-worship as childish.
Q: Logbook: Do you think our culture's current love affair with heroes will last?
A: Warshak: If history is any guide, the current passion for heroism will recede as quickly as yesterday's fashion unless we seize the moment. We can do so by revising our sense of what is normal to include heroic values as essential to a life well lived. Heroic traits and behavior are not just for times of crisis. Not only must we grasp the significance and importance of a heroic outlook on life, we must learn how to impart this spirit to our children. That is a central goal of my next book.
Q Logbook: Has there been much written for parents about how to inspire children's heroic potential?
A: Warshak: If there has been, I'd like to know about it. Books on parenting, including my own, have a more narrow focus. We have books on developing children's intellectual potential, on raising compliant children, on developing their emotional intelligence, artistic abilities, any type of athletic ability, social skills, even leadership skills. But, perhaps because our culture has seen heroics as intimately tied to aggression, parents have no guides on how to nurture and foster children's view of themselves as potentially heroic.
Q: Logbook: Your book, Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond From a Vindictive Ex, was published earlier this year. Is there any connection between that book and your current project?
A: Warshak: Each deals with extremes of parent-child relationships. Divorce Poison reflects several years of research on a very prevalent but relatively neglected type of mistreatment of children. In writing that book, I learned a lot about how parents can corrupt children's sense of reality and subvert their ability to exercise independent judgment.
My next book—and my summer seminar presentation—addresses another neglected aspect of child-rearing, but at the opposite extreme. Instead of looking at how parents poison children's souls, I am interested in what parents can do to ennoble their children's souls.
Q: Logbook: What suggestions do you have along these lines?
A: Warshak: I hesitate to say at this point because this is a work in progress. But let me give this preview: I will be discussing what I call "heroic family values" and how parents can create a family environment that encourages their children to reach for the best within them.
Q: Logbook: Hasn't our culture always supported hero-worship?
A: Warshak: Yes and no. Our culture sends mixed signals. The silver screen and the small screen give us heroes and superheroes. But in general those who dominate the national dialogue on children's entertainment are preoccupied with concerns about the harmful effects of the aggression that accompanies the exploits of many of children's real life and fictional heroes. Children receive very little support at home or at school for their interest in heroes and superheroes. Parents usually tolerate their kids' preoccupation with heroes primarily because the genre keeps the kids entertained. Before 9/11, kids could move through grade school without ever having heard a teacher discuss the concept of a hero.
Children need heroes. If we default on our job of teaching children what makes a genuine hero, we forgo the privilege of shaping their choices. Left to their own devices, children usually select pop-culture icons as their heroes.
Some celebrities wear the label well. Others do not. Still others parade their vices for vulnerable children to emulate. It is not enough to criticize children's choices. To prepare them to live on a higher plane, adults must understand with better clarity the values and virtues that expand the measure of a full life. Objectivism is tailor-made to fill this need. I can't think of a better audience with which to share my ideas-in-formation than TOC's summer seminar. I am delighted to have this opportunity and look forward to a lively exchange of ideas.
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