Distrust Deters Achievement

Q: My 14-year-old son can be mistrustful and cynical towards others, and is even guarded when it comes to his friends. His class is full of “cool” students who appear to harbor that same attitude. As he is planning to go to sleep-away camp, he is in the midst of deciding which boys he wants to be with in his bunk. But when we talk about which names to write down on his preference list, he kind of freezes. It seems to me that his attitude stops him from making new friends; it’s like he is stuck on certain judgments of others and doesn’t get past that.

I’m really more concerned about his general attitude than this particular situation. I’m sure by tomorrow the issue of camp bunkmates will be worked out. But it highlights for me his general wariness of new people and new situations. Otherwise, he does well academically and doesn’t have any major conflicts with his brothers and sisters.

Is his cynicism just a sign of our times? Baruch Hashem, he is very positive towards his Yiddishkeit, an attitude that I hope will continue throughouthis teenage years and beyond.

A: Parents can find it puzzling to realize that their child is overly mistrustful.Sometimes a parent will uncomfortably admit that he, too, is mistrustful, and that the child may well have absorbed this maladaptive coping mechanism. Perhaps some parental introspectionin this case would be helpful. It is true that children who are mistrustful and cynicalare generally less open to new ideas and new people. Being continually suspect of other peoples’ motives also makes life more complex and difficult to navigate. Having classmates who behave this way only exacerbates the situation.

When we learn the halachos of shemiras halashon, we see the concept of “kabdeihu v’chashdeihu” — the idea that if someone has reason to doubt another’s integrity, he should still give that person proper respect, but yet be on guard with him. Thus, some cynicism is warranted in certain occasions and should be applied for our self-preservation. Throughout our lives, much of our actions are clearly based on “calculated risks,” as we weigh and measure our actions according to the information we have at our disposal at the time.

However, very few great achievements in our world would have occurred were it not for the fact that some risk was involved and the person chose to take that risk. This concept needs to be stressed with a mistrustful child. If a person does not take a certain amount of risk in life, opportunities will be lost and the person may not reach his full potential.

This idea is seen in Megillas Esther. When Mordechai asks Esther to go to King Achashverosh and plead for the Jews, her willingness to take this risk saved all of us. Hashem rules the world and only He can know how events will turn out in any given situation. When a child is mature enough to understand the concept, he needs to be taught that no person has the ultimate ability to hurt another if Hashem does not desire that this occur. In this way, the issue of mistrust will be decreased, and the child’s potential as a human being will not be stifled due to fear of others.

An appropriate amount of trust towards other people needs to be modelled by the parents. Are you or your husband perhaps verbally judgmental of others? Do you speak of embarking on new experiences and situations with enthusiasm or trepidation? Children often emerge being fearful or brave as a product of their home environment.

In general, attempting to improve communication with a mistrustful child is of paramount importance. Perhaps an adult figure has disappointed him, and the child’s cynicism needs to be furthered explored. An example of this might be that a child’s teacher embarrasses him continually. The child might feel uncomfortable telling his parent because the parent has this exact complaint about the child!

If the cynicism continues or increases, professional help is suggested to be sure that nothing of a serious nature has occurred that needs to be addressed.