Dear Therapist:

I have a 12-year-old son who has always been a bit of the “weaker” sort. Always been very needy, very fragile, as well as academically challenged. He always seems to want more and more attention from mommy and daddy and spends at least 3-4 weeks a year home sick (really sick not faking it). It seems like it is just the personality that he was born with. As he gets older, I am becoming more and more concerned about his future and if he is strong enough to succeed. I don’t want to give him more than he can handle but I wish there was a way to “toughen him up” so that he has been better prepared. I would appreciate your thoughts, comments, and suggestions on how best to do this so that he is prepared for life as an adult. Thank you.



You describe your son as fragile and needy. He is attention seeking and appears to rely on others more than you would expect from a child his age. I am a bit unclear to what degree his fragility and neediness is due to physical issues and how much relates to emotional constitution. Of course these two have a reciprocal relationship in which each affects the other, so to some degree the question is one of emphasis: How much focus is placed on the physical aspect, and how much on your son’s emotional needs? In your question, you seem to be addressing both physical and emotional concerns. You worry that your son will be unable to succeed if he is too “weak.”

With regard to clearly identified physical problems, this is something that should be addressed by your son’s physician. If there is an underlying medical condition that contributes to you son’s needy personality, it should be appropriately treated. Physical ailments aside, what makes your son emotionally fragile and needy?

On a basic level, children’s reactions come from a combination of three factors. Children (as well as adults) do what serves them in one capacity or another. If a child is rewarded (either directly or through their own positive feelings), the behavior leading (in their mind) to the reward is thereby reinforced. Once a reaction is rewarded, continuing reward if often not necessary for the reaction to continue being reinforced. This is the stuff of “habit.” The third factor relates to family roles.

Within a family system people typically take on roles. Most of us can identify the roles that help define our place in the family. Some people are identified as the peacemaker, others as the responsible one, yet others as the nurturing one. There are many roles, and these are created and defined for two basic reasons. One relates to that particular person’s individual emotional needs. But the other, very powerful, reason that roles are established and reinforced is the need of other family members and the family as a whole.

Families can be viewed as a system, similar in many ways to an individual. Families have personalities, needs, and problems. Just as individuals have internal conflicts that they try and address (sometimes in a conflicting manner), families work in a similar way. Sometimes, a role is maintained to address the need of the individual and sometimes for the need of a sub-relationship (as between a father and daughter). At other times, the needs of the entire family come into play.

Most often, family roles are not created or maintained on a conscious level. They are usually created to fill a need that is not clear to those involved. For example, if the mother feels unneeded and unappreciated, she may unconsciously reward weakness by coddling a child when they exhibit signs of need. Reward, for the child, can be the emotional aspect of the coddling, specific things that are done for the child, or—for instance—the ability to miss school. When an individual has issues that negatively affect them, identifying and addressing underlying causes is often the first step. Similarly, when roles negatively affect family members, the family relationships and needs should be addressed.

To directly address your query about how to toughen up your son, I would respond that “traditional” measures that aimed to do this (like “tough love”) typically didn’t work, and often backfired. In today’s world, I believe that they would be even less likely to work—and more likely to backfire. To truly strengthen a child’s inner “toughness,” the best strategy is to bolster his self-esteem. It may seem that your son is “simply weak” or “has no backbone.” What is more likely is that he defines himself as weak and incapable. If this belief is reinforced, it can be very difficult for him to rise above it. If, however, his positive qualities and attributes are reinforced, he is much more likely to focus on these, allowing him to slowly shed the now-comfortable cocoon of neediness and fragility.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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