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Bodybuilding, Kids and Self-Esteem

By Dr. Daniel Gwartney
Originally published in Ironman Magazine, January 2000

Q: We are taking in our first foster child. He is 14 and was abused in previous foster care. If we get him involved in bodybuilding, will it build up his self-esteem, or will it make him overly conscious of his body?

A: I saw cases of child abuse and neglect during my professional training. Frankly, we were taught to recognize, record and refer. At least that was my perception of the training. The physical signs of child abuse, be it violent or sexual, are well described, and many can even be treated. One aspect that I was never trained to approach or treat was the emotional trauma inflicted by such treatment. That's probably because no treatment program has been universally accepted.

I thought I had left behind many of the battles of clinical medicine when I chose to enter a specialty field of laboratory medicine, emotional trauma being one of them. However, I came across an author, Andrew Vachss, who writes novels revolving around a character named Burke. Burke is a champion of children, often ones who have been victimized by the very people who have been placed in positions of care and authority over them. Vachss is an attorney who had been a social worker and prison warden of a children's institution. He has devoted himself to serving and protecting children much like the ones described in his books.

After reading his most recent book, Choice of Evil, I contacted Mr. Vachss. He mentioned the possibility of a connection between bodybuilding and a history of abuse. That really intrigued me.

I've never been a victim of abuse, but I do admit that one of the forces that drives me during my workouts is a fear of failing. If I'm hitting the wall in my workouts, I find myself envisioning a situation where my inability to do something results in a personal loss. I do not do this on purpose. It just comes into my head. I find myself mentally trying to hold up a falling ceiling or closing a door, pulling a rope, whatever. It sounds strange and probably could be defined as psychotic. I haven't ever told anyone about it, not even Chris, my girlfriend and training partner.

I don't know why I have this response to training. Maybe it's a subconscious effort to activate my limbic system to promote a fight-for-life response. Maybe I'm trying to generate an effort greater than a trivial matter like moving a barbell could normally generate. Maybe I failed or nearly failed once and that's my way of preventing it from ever happening again.

My life and my situation are fairly normal. Placing myself in the mind of a person who suffered a childhood of abuse and torment, I can only imagine that this kind of fear must be a part of every activity, every day. Children are physically and emotionally dependent on the adults who are charged with their care. Should those individuals or some element of the environment threaten a child, especially chronically, that child will not thrive. It's likely that the child would be driven to one extreme of society or another. For some, despair is a comfortable zone where life holds no value and the best situation is an absence of pain and discomfort. Hope is less than a faded memory, no more real than the mommy who didn't show up to make it stop. Other extremes include rage against society, criminal behavior (often with the same elements, such as violence, sexual aggression and drug use, that defined the early life experiences) and overachieving (becoming the perfect parent or community pillar to try to compensate for the punishment that is mistakenly felt as being justified).

If I had to respond to such an upbringing, I would want to protect myself from ever having it happen again. Honestly, if I grew up in fear for my life, I would use whatever means were available to become the biggest, baddest and meanest thing that walked, crawled or swam. I can easily see how bodybuilding could act as an outlet or be a possible response for someone coming from that background.

I'd like you to correspond with Mr. Vachss' group, called The Zero. I reached them at They may be able to direct you to the appropriate resource. As for now, I can only tell you what I might do in your situation. This is not professional advice, not medical advice, just one dad talking to another.

He's at a tough age, and he comes from one of the worst environments. Use your judgment as to how much guidance, contact and trust he's willing to give and to earn. Offer him the opportunity to go to the gym with you. Don't obligate him to work out with you; let him do his own thing. Since he's not driving yet, it's perfectly reasonable for you two to go together. If he wants, let him work out with you. It's a good time to try to forge a relationship. You might try letting him spot you. It will show him that you're willing to trust him. Don't rush him and don't rush yourself. In the beginning, you are just another chump collecting a state check at best and possibly just like what he came from at worst. I truly wish you the best. If anyone has any advice for a situation like this, please feel free to post it at the Web site for Mr. Vachss' group.


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