|Even a casual follower of journalism about youth would have to conclude that raising kids is all about putting out fires. An endless stream of anxieties floods newspapers and magazines. The subtext is that everything can and will go wrong. Given the bombardment of worry, we might assume a widespread understanding of the psychology of children and adolescents. But it’s not so. To the contrary, all that we really know of the psychology of youth is the litany of disorders and afflictions that affect them: inattention, misbehavior, impulsivity, crime, dyslexia, depression, anxiety, truancy, laziness, addiction, bullying. All are certainly important issues, but they don’t even approach an understanding of youth. Worse, they portray youth as bloated with problems and despair. Yet because we mistake a pastiche of disorders for an actual psychology of youth, our relationship with kids is one-sided.
Our vocabulary for thinking about and describing kids is infused with the jargon of pathology, rather than terms that describe important personal differences. Everywhere, there are young people who want to talk about these differences. It is the most interesting and important subject in their lives.
Although I’m irritated by alarmist, and often shallow, media coverage, I’m most impatient with my own colleagues. I believe the discipline of psychology, with few exceptions, has failed to articulate a more comprehensive, more interesting psychology of youth. I’m talking about a psychology that describes the strengths of young people, that explores their ideals, priorities, and beliefs. I’m referring to a psychology built on genuine interest in kids; one that doesn’t insist kids be relegated to the status of “subjects.” A meaningful psychology of youth must be partially written by young people themselves.
Isn’t it remarkable we know so little about what really matters to kids, as compared to what they bully each other about? Do you think it’s possible that our own myopic focus is partially responsible for the problem? Always another school assembly about bullying, but where are the assemblies about the art that attracts youth, their take on politics, or what families mean to them? I think most of us wistfully recall our own earlier lives when trying to understand young people. Nice start, but c’mon!
Would we allow the psychology of adulthood to be so one-sided? Imagine that books about adults were only interested in problems, bad habits, and neuro-anomalies.
A Professional Secret
(There is some professional recognition of the issue. As a Master’s student at Lesley University, the Head of the counseling program made a personal appeal for students to pursue a career working with children. It was a surprising moment. It started me thinking about how it is as important for a vocation to be useful, as self-affirming.)
I’m not trying to throw my fellow professionals under the bus. They undoubtedly know things about other groups that I don’t. But the bottom line is that relatively few of us focus on youth, and the great majority have been trained in graduate programs that emphasized that one’s professional status is confirmed by being an expert in psychopathology – the realm of disorders. It’s an economic thing too. Would anyone spend time and money to visit a psychologist for an appraisal of strengths and wellness? I think there’s an assumption that those issues are on auto-pilot, when in fact those are the issues that warrant the greatest discussion. Not because they point to problems, but because they point to raw potential.
Must We Always “Improve” and “Win?”
The basic imperative to “improve” and “win” is everywhere. We are fanatics for sports because they exude these priorities, and those same attributes have been projected on public education as a “Race to the Top.” Here in New England, the pursuit of a high status, Ivy League education is particularly intense. So much of our self-worth as New Englanders is caught up in credentials.
There is a somewhat vague ideal conveyed by these aspirations. It’s not quite clear what it is, but there is no question that the ideal – this projection of perfection – is more important than our individual differences. In other words, the emphasis is on making real life fit the ideal, rather than life fitting the person. When young people try to push back against this system, they are often called immature or self-absorbed. Not so. In my view, these kids are visionaries – the ones who are unafraid to imagine a life of personal relevance. I think many more young people would join them if they knew how, or were given opportunity and voice.
Conversation Isn’t Important, It’s Everything
The challenge is connecting with kids in a way that doesn’t necessarily imply a need for improvement and at the same time doesn’t pivot on the exploration of feelings. This latter point must sound odd coming from a clinical psychologist, but when complex emotions get pushed into the forefront of therapy it often becomes a “deal-breaker.” Kids opt out of treatment not because they are uninterested in the process, but because it doesn’t feel natural to always place emotions in front of ideas, perspectives, or opinions. At least that is my strong perspective of youth when it comes to creating rapport and trust.
Over the years of working with kids in therapy, I have become more convinced that longer-term therapy relationships are more productive; they produce deeper change, and more lasting change. Some years ago, I read a book called “The Silent Child” by Laurent Danon-Boileau. The author was a psychoanalyst and professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne. His book is essentially a group of case studies of children who don’t or won’t communicate. The thing I found most striking about these studies was how long and intensively the therapist worked with the child. I’ve learned that this type of approach is more common in Europe, where there is, I believe, a better understanding of how therapy works for kids.
(A similar commitment is portrayed in the film The King’s Speech, where the King’s speech therapist informs him that they will meet not occasionally, but several times per week. Certainly that mandate is about more than practice. It’s as much about the relationship carved by so much time spent together; time that enables the King’s therapist to live more deeply in the mind of a person overcome by fear and apprehension.)
An effective therapist of children is not a technician as much as he or she is a creator of relationship. This sort of reasoning drives some Americans crazy because it sounds so vague, or possibly intrusive. I’ve met lots of parents who would like me to solve the behavior at hand, but who are less enthusiastic about the benefits of a longer-term therapeutic relationship. Yet through such a relationship young people grow and trust, and communicate, and develop resilience.
Confidentiality prevents me from telling the exact stories, or showing you the letters I’ve received from appreciative adolescents and young adults, now doing well, but who were barely out of kindergarten when I first met them. I can’t hedge the truth on this matter. Many more kids would benefit from longer-term treatment that allowed the complexities of their selves – their wants, ideals, and frustrations – to unfold over time. It’s not neat or tidy; there can be long stretches of difficulty and inertia. But that is supposed to happen. Life is going to make those things happen anyway. It’s better when a young person has someone to guide him or her through the confusion without judgment or an agenda.
I believe many parents can also be effective in this capacity, but at least as many others are uncomfortable with these issues, or too busy to give them the attention they deserve. There are certain kids who can’t, or won’t, allow their parents to serve in this role for them, or at least not all of it. Yet the sum of these important decisions, forks in the road, dilemmas and excitements, is the true psychology of youth. It is an encounter infinitely more interesting and validating than the solemn confrontation of personal syndromes. The psychology of youth has its own kind of disorder, but there’s no shame in owning it – only the excitement of growing up and becoming a part of the world.
Let’s Talk About It
Only when the focus of dialogue about youth changes will we stop chasing our tails. Your family deserves better than to be whipped into perpetual frenzy by alarmists.
For a people who love their children as much as I believe Americans do, we have a reactive way of showing it. The best times to think about youth are when there is nothing immediately wrong. Hint: this is also the best time to talk to your kids about pretty much anything.It’s in these moments when reflection trumps worry, and when parenting is more creative than putting out fires. I wish I could point you toward a range of books that might stimulate your reflections on the strengths and potential of youth, but few exist. I think it’s up to us, those who care not just about our own kids, but the state of childhood itself, to imagine a more interesting story of youth.
Keep the conversation going.
Recently, the Grace Church School in New York hosted a reception for the Children’s Arts Guild, where I spoke about the “Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose.” Here’s the video:
“Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose” Part I
“Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose” Part II
“Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose” Part III
“Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose” Part IV
Parent Coaching The nature of my clinical approach is somewhat unique, and I find that parents in different parts of North America want to partner in helping their children and teens. To that end, I am able to do parent coaching via telephone, email, or Skype. In some cases, it works well when families can visit for an initial meeting, and then follow-up as noted above. (401) 816-5900.
On Purpose Before Twenty is published by Four Corners Pressand can be purchased worldwide.
<br“Fascinating and deeply moving.”
Deborah Meier, MacArthur Award Recipient, NYU Steinhardt School Senior Scholar