Building a Resilient Family

Date Published: August 29, 2018

Research shows that exposing children to manageable amounts of stress and uncomfortable situations can build resilience and confidence. Dennis Charney, MD, explains how he did this with his own family, and his son, Alex Charney, MD, joins the conversation.

While sharing their personal stories, they also discuss the importance of having role models starting at a young age and how this can help build resilience.

Podcast Transcript

Host: 00:02
Welcome everyone and thank you for listening to another episode of the podcast Road to Resilience. For the next 30 minutes, we're discussing how you can build a resilient family and raise resilient children. You can actually train them to have mental toughness and overcome adversity. Here to give us all the details is Dr. Dennis Charney, the Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and his son, Dr. Alex Charney. Both are experts in psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai. They're giving us a firsthand account of how this can be done through their own story, and they'll talk about putting their resilience to use after Dean Charney nearly lost his life after a shooting. So first I want to start by thanking you both for joining us.

Dennis Charney:00:43
Thank you.

Alex Charney: 00:44
Thanks. It's great to be here.

Host: 00:45
We want to talk about families and resilience. Here you are, a world renowned researcher of resilience. Do you have a resilient family?

Dennis Charney:00:55
Yes, I think so. And I think that's been proven in terms of what they've had to deal with throughout their life, including my own trauma.

Host: 01:04
And Alex?

Alex Charney: 01:04
I hope I'm a resilient person. I hope in difficult times, other people can look to me and feel that I'm a steady presence.

Host: 01:11
Are you resilient because of your dad?

Alex Charney: 01:13
Yeah, I think that whatever resilience I have, I owe to him. I think that resilience is contagious.

Host: 01:24
What makes your family resilient?

Dennis Charney:01:26
I've tried to make my family resilient. What was important to me in helping my children be prepared for what life brings them. And as you know, everybody at some point in their life has to face challenges, disappointment, death and so forth. And so the question is, how do you prepare your children for what will eventually happen to them?

Host: 01:55
How can families be resilient?

Dennis Charney:01:57
What I've learned from the research is that you can make people more resilient, it's not just purely like a genetic feature, that you can train yourself and you can train family members, you could train your kids to be more resilient. And you don't become more resilient by living a stress free life because then you're not prepared. Then there's a term called "stress inoculation." Which means that if you expose people to manageable amounts of stress that they can handle and learn from, then over time an individual can handle more and more stress. And the term we use is that you develop a psychological tool box based on those experiences where you're building your stress resilience so that when something really serious happens, you've got this psychological toolbox, which involves optimism and confidence and so forth to utilize when you're faced with a serious trauma. So that has implications on how you raise your children, that you want to give them experiences that may be out of their comfort zone that then they become confident that they can handle and then you present them with another experience that might be out of the comfort zone and so on and so on. And so eventually they're prepared.

Host: 03:29
And that's exactly what you did with your family.

Dennis Charney: 03:32
I try to! I tell you in the beginning, when we would go on family trips, we didn't go to The Bahamas and so forth. We would go to National Parks and hike and do really outdoor stuff. And I got great pleasure in doing that with my children. Sometimes they got great pleasure out of it, but not always. I thought it was important for them to experience the outdoors and nature and pushing yourself. And with many of these trips there's always a glitch. Something happens that challenges you.

One story I have permission to tell is that one of my daughters who always, even when she was a young girl, took her a while to get used to new things. And so one time we were hiking in some national park and bad weather came in. We got a little bit lost. There was some wildlife she was afraid of. And so in front of everybody else, she said that she despised me, right? She said it from her heart, you know, I despise you, but I never gave into her. And now she's a mother. She's faced tough things in her life. She's an outdoors woman. Where does she go in winter? She goes to Yellowstone. The experience of her gaining confidence when she was put in situations out of our comfort zone has made her an incredible woman, now mother, professional. There was one time we were in Patagonia, Chilean Patagonia. It was one night where we're camping in a very remote part of a rain forest and the weather was horrendous. It was like an incredible thunderstorm. And you thought that the lighting was like right there. And so I'm in a tent with my friend and Alex is a tent by himself, and he put his tent up like way far away from us. And I'm thinking, where is he going? I thought that was brave! We were all kind of scared in the tent, the lighting's right out there. Then he went further away into the rain forest by himself. He just showed grace under pressure, which is one of my favorite quotes, a Hemingway quote. You just inherently showed that. And then I knew that whatever he did he was going to be able to handle it. That was an analogy, but I knew that he had it in him to handle tough situations.

Host: 06:20
You put your kids in a number of challenging situations, does one situation that you put him in stand out to help him get to that point?

Dennis Charney: 06:26
Each one of these adds something to the toolbox, the psychological toolbox that help you be more resilient.

Host: 06:31
And Alex, talk to us about an uncomfortable situation that really built that character in you that you can take away and say, you know, I'm resilient because of this.

Alex Charney: 06:41
My dad posed the ultimate challenge to me growing up was when he took me out of my comfort zone in the sense that we moved when I was 16 years old from the town where I grew up to a different state. You know, for me those, that was a life changing event where I was basically put in a position to figure out how you're going to build a new life for yourself in a new place and be very successful. We trained for a triathlon together, but you know, I'd never done a triathlon and I don't think he had either. Every weekend we would do really challenging bike rides and we were both big guys so we're pretty slow on our bikes and these other bikers would zoom by us and we would call them the "bumble bees" because, you know, they just like flying by us and you know, but it was, it was, it's like humor in a challenging event in a challenging time. You know, we're, we're, we're working our butts off and these guys effortly fly past us is how we kind of, you know, cope with a difficult scenario. And then during the race itself, you just kind of are constantly remembering all the time during your training of like when you f you know, throwing up because you would run so hard and you know, the challenging moments during the training process that get you through the event itself.

Dennis Charney: 08:01
See that's analogous. It becoming a more resilient person. So he, he recalled the training and that gave him confidence during the actual challenge of the event to get through it. That's what resilience training is all about, that you put yourself in uncomfortable situations. And then when and you get confidence and then ultimately when you're faced with something really bad, you go back and recall that you were able to accomplish this something before and you can do it again. And we were brothers as opposed to, you know, him being a son that I had to worry about. And then ultimately things changed because I got older and he got stronger. And so now he's looking out for me like, are you okay back there? So that's been a unique relationship.

New Speaker: 08:51
How have things changed for you?

Alex Charney: 08:53
It's, you know, they haven't changed that much, gotten a little slower, but he's one story that kind of sums up. We go, we go kayaking up this, uh, this lake called the Lake Sebago up in, um, Harriman State Park and we go there, you know, pretty much every weekend. And we were kayaking around this lake in a circle, you know, like, like maniacs, like, you know, we just keep going in a circle around this big lake and he, I'm usually far ahead of them by just turn around and make sure he's still there. And like I turned around my time, you know, it's probably a year or two ago and he wasn't there, and I was like, he must've had a heart attack and died because like, if my dad is not like, he doesn't stop, he's like, he's a machine. Um, but he, he had stopped to help someone else who was in a boat and like didn't know how to paddle. So yeah, he's gotten older and maybe a little bit slower, but he's, he's still as tough as he's always been.

Dennis Charney: 09:46
Right. I'm slower. I used to beat him, but I'm still tough. But that's part of resilience. Even though it sounds weird, you know, that these kinds of life experiences, um, you know, putting yourself in some degree of, uh, danger if something really bad happens. But, uh, they prepare you for the, like, the thing that happened to me, it was really life-threatening. But those prior experiences when you're in a difficult situation and you have to be calm and you have to deal with it helps you. And it helped me and I've seen it in him. So I know that he's prepared for what happened. He will face in life as I've seen them in difficult situations and how he just inherently reacts to it.

Host: 10:33
What research is out there about building resilience for families?

Dennis Charney: 10:37
We've learned a couple of things. One is related to role models. When have to handle a trauma, disappointment, grief in your life, the way you determine how to handle that, that it starts with a role model or role models because there's no one person that you can emulate totally. So you want different role models in your life. You know how that actually works biologically, it's still being determined, but in part it's related to memories, right? That you, you learned from your role models, they become memories in your brain and that your recall, those memories when you're facing a, you know, something traumatic and those memories will stay with you forever. And so role models in a way on permanent in your brain, even if the individuals that influenced you no longer with you. You'll see—resilient families, resilient communities, even resilient cities, you know, and the question is, well, how do you, how do you build that kind of resilience? And when it comes to the families, in many cases, your, uh, your parents, your grandparents and can, can be role models as you yourself grow up. So you can see resilience get transmitted through generations. In our family, my grandparents came from Russia and Austria. One of my grandparents had a sixth grade education and, um, was a butcher. My other grandparent, uh, had very little education and had a small grocery shop. So that's just two generations ago from me. And then my father goes to City College, you know, for free, also had the GI Bill, and then there's me and I become a dean. But they were incredibly resilient individuals and they were role models for my father and then for me. So, you know, that's one way of thinking about how role models can be important within a family.

Host: 13:11
And then you in turn became a role model for your own son.

Alex Charney: 13:14
Yeah, absolutely. Um, you know, I think passing down the, the philosophies of, you know, hard work and, um, you know, optimism and, and just, you know, trying your best through, you know, these are, these are values that are generally shared through throughout a family and, you know, the concept of, of what is a family, what brings people together—it's not just your shared DNA, it's a shared common set of values. Um, and definitely in, in, in our family, the values of hard work and, um, you know, not taking anything for granted and persevering through difficult times are our values that are shared amongst everyone in their importance then is solidified over time.

Host: 13:57
When did you realize that your father was your role model?

Alex Charney: 14:00
And when I got to college and I had to start making decisions about my professional future and, uh, you know, how I was going to live independently and who I was going to be. Uh, then I really started thinking, I became very conscious of how much of a role model my dad was for me.

Host: 14:16
Why is he your role model?

Alex Charney: 14:18
He always drove home the importance of resilience through his research—the values of maintaining composure under pressure and persevering through difficult times. I mean these were things that he, he really, um, emphasized to us.

Host: 14:31
How has he helped you personally as a role model?

Alex Charney: 14:35
I remember one time that that stands out where I was really struck by my father's commitment to, to, to being there for me, which is, which is related to, and him being a role model for me where I was in a band in college, and I was probably a sophomore in college and we were playing at CBGB, which was a famous music venue in Manhattan, the Lower East Side, which, which since has closed. And me and the guys in my band were super excited—we're playing at CBGB in New York City. This is a dream come true. And, of course, it was like a Wednesday night and it was empty. There was like two people in there. Um, and the two people who were there where my dad and his, uh, his, his assistant, Doreen. And I remember thinking was on stage, "Here I am on, on, on the stage at CBGB, playing to an empty room, and the only person there is my dad. Yeah. Which, which to me was like, this guy is like always going to be there for me, no matter what I'm doing.

Host: 15:37
And how was the show? How'd he do?

Dennis Charney: 15:40
Average. [laughs]

Alex Charney: 15:41
I was awesome.

Dennis Charney: 15:42
The message here also is that it's generational. Because he will do anything for his sisters, his mother, my brother, you know, um, and so forth. So, you know, when you can pass on those values, it lives for a long time, it goes through generations in your family, then it impacts so many other, you know, people.

Host: 16:07
So resilient—this is something that can be learned?

Dennis Charney: 16:10
Absolutely. It's somewhat genetic—how somebody can handle stress—but more importantly it's your, your experiences throughout your life.

Host: 16:22
All of this came into play for the Charney family the morning of August 29th, 2016. That's when Dr. Dennis Charney was shot more than a dozen times in a restaurant parking lot after picking up breakfast on his way to work. A researcher, who he fired seven years prior for manipulating data, carefully planned the attack that nearly ended his life. We have talked about your father's shooting during the first two episodes. Where were you when you got that call?

Alex Charney: 16:49
I was sleeping. It was just a weekday morning. The call in the morning he got shot from my mother. It was around 7:30 in the morning. "Daddy's been shot." And she's hysterical. I just hailed a cab. You snap into action and you stay calm. And having a role model in that situation is critical because you're able to, to act and to be successful in that time when you're facing trauma yourself. And so I think in that respect, role models are always with you even when you're not conscious of it.

Host: 17:28
Go into more detail. How did him being a role model help you through that time?

Alex Charney: 17:33
I was in the cab and then my sister called me and said, "Why'd you leave the city without me? Turn around and come back and get me?" So I turned around and went back and got her. The two of us—and she also looks up to my father a great deal as a role model and she's resilient herself. She and I were—we weren't panicking in the cap. We were calling people. "So who do we need to call?" She—I believe she was calling my uncle, um, and letting him know what was going on, telling him he should get in the car and come to come to the hospital. Um, I was calling uh, Ken Davis and Eric Nestler to let them know that something was wrong. My dad had been shot. We don't know if someone's, if it was targeted or not, they should be careful for themselves because they're also leaders of Mount Sinai. These are the things I'm sure my dad would want us to be doing in that situation.

Host: 18:23
What is it like to go through something like that, to almost lose your role model?

Alex Charney: 18:28
When I got to the hospital, I think I told my dad, you know, I'm really grateful for our relationship. Um, but, uh, but you don't, I don't take it for granted on a day-to-day basis. So I remember feeling like, you know, even though I was certain that he was in, I was, I was really confident he was going to be OK. You know, there's this element that if something were to happen and you were to pass away, I would feel like, you know, we, I had no regrets. That I didn't leave anything unsaid. We, we got the most out of our time together.

Host: 19:02
When you were there, how did you stay resilient?

Alex Charney: 19:04
I drew upon the, the opportunity to be resilient, to go through an experience like that with your dad, um, when you've been on these trips. Yup. Kind of mimicking or, you know, creating these mock scenarios of opportunities to be resilient. Uh, here was the real thing. And, uh, so, so I think to both of us, it was, it was a chance to face a difficult time with, uh, you know, with courage and strength and, and do the best you can to get through it OK.

Dennis Charney:19:32
As Alex described, his reaction and the reaction of others was, OK, something bad happened, but I'm going to have to stay calm. Uh, I'm going to have to make good decisions. I'm going to have to support other people. I'm going to have to support the trauma victim.

Host: 19:51
Dean Charney, who are your role models?

Dennis Charney: 19:54
When it came to trauma, uh, I called upon the people that I met along the way in my studies of resilience. For example, uh, the POWs I got to know, you know, they were in prison for six to eight years and we're heavily traumatized and tortured. Whereas my own experience was a single event. So I figured, gee, if they can get through six to eight years, I can get through this single event.

Host: 20:22
And so how critical have role models been to your recovery and resilience?

Dennis Charney: 20:27

Host: 20:30
So resilience has been key to your recovery for you and your entire family. We talked about what it's like to almost lose a role model, but Alex, after your father was shot, one of your role models, Dr. Pamela Sklar passed away after losing her battle with cancer. Dr. Pamela Sklar—she an outstanding scientist or researcher of psychiatry and genetics. Tell us more about her.

Alex Charney: 20:53
I was actually a med student and I was on my psychiatry rotation and I became very interested in schizophrenia, and Pamela had just started and she was a world expert in the genetics of schizophrenia. Uh, so I'm, I met her and asked her if I could work with her and uh, that was the beginning of my relationship with her. And over the course of the next seven years, um, she trained me in terms of how to be a scientist, how to be a physician, psychiatrist, and um, know how to be a leader in science.

Host: 21:29
What made her a role model?

Alex Charney: 21:32
Pamela was a role model because for me, because she was unrelenting, she was inspired by the goal that I had, uh, that I shared with her, which was to develop new ways to, to help people who are suffering from mental illness. And she was just as passionate. When I graduated from my PhD program—so it was about two months before she passed away—and, uh, the mentors of PhD students typically will come onto the stage and do this ritual. They call it a "hooding ceremony." The morning of that, that ceremony, and someone just came and told me beforehand, you know, Pamela's too sick, she's not gonna make it. Um, so, uh, this other person was going to do the hooding for me. You could see all the, all the mentors on the stage and she wasn't there. And, uh, they called my name and I walked on stage and I turned around—

Speaker 1: 22:35
Alexander William Charney will be hooded by professor Pamela Sklar. [applause]

Alex Charney: 22:40
And then there's Pamela. She's like kind of coming out from the back of the stage and barely able to walk. She should put the thing on my neck and gave me a hug. And she had to walk right upstairs. She couldn't, she couldn't stand that long. She was just really tough. And my father's the dean of the school where I trained, so he's on the stage, too. And uh, yeah, you walk across the stage and you shake the dean's hand and he whispered into my ear, and he said, "You'll never forget what what Pamela did for you." And I won't.

Host: 23:13
We've been talking about different resilience factors during this podcast series. Which factors did you put to use to deal with losing a mentor?

Alex Charney: 23:23
Definitely, um, having a role model. So that, you know, that's a key in resilience—is having someone to model yourself after. You know, so when, when you have someone who you can imagine in your head what they would be doing if they were in your shoes at that moment, it becomes much simpler because just try and be that person. You just try and mimic them and model where you think they would be doing. And uh, you then become a model for the people around you. And they look to you for guidance and strength. When Pamela passed away, I definitely relied on her as a role model and imagine what would she be doing if she was in my shoes and what would she want me to do if she was facing these circumstances. And I was constantly tried to uh, lean on that to this day. Uh, just yesterday I was facing circumstances and wondering what would Pamela want me to do right now, and what would Pamela do right now? And what you do in moving forward is you say, "OK," you know, "What do we do now?" You know, Pamela wasn't finished. She left behind some of the biggest projects in her career, she was just starting when she passed away. And no one could finish it better than us. We knew how to do them. She had trained us how to do them. It really is an obligation for us to take advantage of that. We owe that to her.

Host: 24:58
What advice do you have for other people who have lost role models?

Alex Charney: 25:02
I think the, the most useful advice I can give is to draw on the qualities of that person who's loss you're grieving, uh, during your, your, your time of mourning. For me, that was really helpful. I, I drew on the qualities of my, my role model, my mentor, Pamela, to move forward. And the other piece of advice I would give is to, uh, to come together with the other people who were, uh, who were also, um, looking up to this person in a way like you. So in my case, that was my labmates, the people who were also trained by Pamela, so it was important for us to come together and share those memories. And that was what we did the day after she passed away in her office, and we continue to do, even now.

Host: 25:53
You're proof that you can move on.

Alex Charney: 25:55
You know, the general principles of leading a resilient life, I think apply. If you can stay optimistic, you can keep an eye on the future, you can draw upon the strengths of the people who you've looked up to and the people around you and have a good support system, I think those are guiding principles that can help you through any tough time, regardless of what it is.

Dennis Charney: 26:22
It's important for individuals, families, communities, cities, nations, to be resilient because you're gonna face some very, uh, uh, challenging, uh, experiences in your life. We all do. As individuals, as communities and so forth. So it's part of life to work toward becoming more resilient.

Host: 26:45
So the takeaway here is that you can train yourself and your family to do this. That's it for Episode 3 of Road to Resilience. You don't want to miss our podcast next month where we'll talk about how faith and spirituality can help you manage stress and get through life's greatest challenges. You can listen starting September 26. Just head over to iTunes and subscribe.