J. Stanley White, a Cypress marriage, family and child counselor, once received a phone call from a woman who said she had heard about him and wanted to see if he was a good therapist.
"So," the woman said, "before I bring this person in I'm going to read the symptoms off, and you do a diagnosis over the phone."
White was game.
"I thought 'I've never had something like this before; this ought to be fun,' so she reads off this thing: withdrawn, sullen, non-communicative, thinks he can rebuild the world, given to fantasy and excessive daydreaming.
"I said, 'Schizophrenia! . . . Or is it possible you have a teen-ager in the house?' She said, 'How did you know that ?' "
Actually, White knows quite a bit about teen-agers--those adolescent travelers through what he calls that "never-never land" between childhood and adulthood.
And in order to provide insight into that neverland, White on Wednesday presented "The Adolescent World Revisited: Or How to Drive Your Teen-ager into His Right Mind," a free lecture sponsored by the Orange County Mental Health Assn. at the Tustin Branch Library.
In what he called a "crash course in adolescent psychology," White, chairman of the department of psychology at Cypress College, emphasized how to understand the thinking and feeling processes of the teen-ager along with the special behavior patterns common to that age group. Although he stressed that he would be talking about generalizations, White noted that "all these comments apply to most situations, probably 90%."
'Out of Control'
"Why is this important?" he asked. "It's important because there is no doubt in my mind that kids are running out of control, that parents are scared.
"We've come through a very permissive age of raising children in which we've let them grow like Topsy because 'they probably will turn out all right and really we're afraid of them anyway so just back off and leave them alone and hope they'll be OK.' Parents, I think, are starting to realize this is a very ineffective way to raise children, and so now they're groping for answers. And most of us grope too late."
This, then, is the teen-age world according to White:
- It's a sociological fact that society has no definite place for teen-agers.
"A teen-ager is not a child and not an adult and is therefore in a never-never land between the two," he said.
"The teen-ager rejects the world of the child, so if you try to treat a teen-ager like a child, forget it, you're through. And in a very strange way a teen-ager also rejects the world of the adult."
To illustrate, White recalled that when he was a high school activities director and "into doing innovative things," he wanted to change the signs on the restrooms from "boys and girls" to "men and women."
Teen-agers Rejected Idea
"The teen-agers didn't want it," he said. "They went to their student council (to protest). They absolutely did not want it. I asked them why. They didn't know, they just didn't like it."
But, he added, "If you stand at an assembly and call them boys and girls, they roll their eyes at you; they laugh; they look at each other like, 'What's this person doing?' because they don't want to be called boys and girls. It's almost an unconscious desire to cling on to childhood, but not too overtly.
"If you make it too overt and say that, then they reject it. So here you are in this crazy world; you can't treat them as children, and you can't really quite treat them as adults."
White noted that in anthropology "there is something called rites of passage, a ceremony or something you go through that marks a significant change in your status"--getting married or becoming a parent, for example.
In so-called primitive societies, he said, they have puberty rites, such as the manhood training in Africa as depicted in "Roots." After going through the training, he said, a boy is considered an adult with adult privileges.
But, he said, "we don't have anything that clearly indicates when you arrive in our society. We have a whole bunch of little things, not one of which tells a kid: 'You've grown up and are accepted by the society.' For example, you have an age when you can quit school, an age when you can join the service, an age when you can vote and a different age when you can drink."
No More Status
"When you graduate from high school, for many kids that's a big deal: I'm now in the adult world, but that doesn't change anything. Nobody treats you differently or gives you more status or respect."
It is, he said, confusing to adolescents.
- Faced with no definite status, teen-agers create their own subculture.
Today it might be punk rock or heavy metal. In White's day, in the mid-'50s, it was rock 'n' roll.
He remembers the initial surge of popularity of rock 'n' roll around 1955, a time when many outraged adults went out of their way to eliminate the music by banning it and smashing the records.
"Anyone who knew the rudiments of psychology would have realized that the moment the adult culture came down with a vengeance and said this music is prehistoric type of stuff and should be squashed, teen-agers would cleave to it more strongly.
"It's a ready-made adolescent number: You (adults) don't want it, you hate it--then it's ours. In fact, the more you hate it the more clearly it becomes ours. And that principle is still around today."
White added that in the adolescent subculture, teen-agers are often trying to delineate the difference between idealism (the way things ought to be) and realism (the way things are). Typically, he said, they're on the idealistic end of the scale and don't see the realistic aspects of life.
"Teen-agers want to right the wrongs, provide social justice and make a lotus land out of this world, and oftentimes have very simplistic answers to some of these problems," he said.
"Now what's the danger in this period? The danger is most of us adults are cynics. The older we get usually the more hardened we get. These kids are still sweet and innocent, and they see all kinds of possibilities--'We can make the whole world wonderful'--and if you come down on them too hard and begin to destroy their idealism, I think that's destructive and wrong."
Dare to Dream
Everyone, White maintains, should dare to dream. "We should flirt with idealism awhile and try to do altruistic things. We (adults) should not foist our pessimism on young people. There's something healthy about optimism, and there's a purpose to what they're doing. Young people push the culture, and the old have cultural lag and pull back. And between the two, society moves forward."
- Although they may deny it, teen-agers are rigid conformists.
"It's an irony that while a teen-ager berates his parents for adhering to a mechanistic, 8-to-5 way of life, they will slavishly follow their crowd, doing exactly what their crowd says, down to minutiae."
He tells the story of a mother who bought her 14-year-old daughter four pairs of jeans for junior high school. The mother made the mistake of buying the wrong designer brand, and the girl simply refused to wear them.
"She said, 'I can't wear that. Nobody wears that. I'll be laughed at.'
"Kids have a very rigid idea of what they have to wear."
- The science of adolescence is an exact science. (This White said with a grin.)
"Teen-agers have a very difficult time distinguishing between shades of gray," he observed. "They see things as black and white: You're with me or against me; you're my friend or you're not. There's nothing in between."
He added that the younger the adolescent, the more true this is. And, he said, "if you combine this science of adolescence with their overly developed idealism, this combination can bring them a lot of trouble. It sets them up for simplistic answers, and there are no simplistic answers."
- Teen-agers have a difficult time dealing with emotionality on the one hand and rationality on the other.
And, White said, "the two of them go together like fire and water: When you're rational, you're not emotional, and if you're emotional, you're not rational."
Kids, he said, lean more toward emotionality than rationality.
He recalled a girl who came to his office and told him she had broken up with her boyfriend. He had been abusing her, and she acknowledged breaking up with him was the right thing to do and that her friends agreed with her.
Then she broke into tears: "The only problem," she said between sobs, "is I love him."
"Kids," said White, "have to learn how to handle and emote feelings and at the same time to make decisions rationally."
- When teen-agers need help, they need it fast.
"Fast means fast," he said. "You don't have time with teen-agers. By the time you find out what's going on, she's run away from home.
"The adolescent years are so tumultuous for most teen-agers that, as one girl told me, you have to run just to keep standing still."
Saying that one year in adolescence is the equivalent to five years of growth in another age span, White noted that a junior girl in high school, for example, is more like a senior than a sophomore.
Between 15 and 16
"Something happens between 15 and 16," he said. "Fifteen-year-old girls cry a lot; they're very emotional, and they're hard to deal with. But there is a maturation that happens with most girls at 16. Suddenly they're young ladies."
If a teen-ager begins developing certain negative or anti-social behaviors, White advises parents, "Please don't fall into the trap of thinking they'll outgrow it.
"Sure there are things all kids go through, and every kid doesn't have to run to the therapist." If the behavior lasts no more than a few weeks, there's nothing to be alarmed about, White says. But, he continues, "if it keeps going on and it's a problem area, sometimes nipping it in the bud is the smartest thing you're going to do, or down the road you may have a real problem on your hands."
White said that among the "permanent problems of adulthood that are related to adolescent screw-ups" are inability to effectively relate to the opposite sex and marital instability.
"Any therapist can tell you that most of the people we see have adolescent problems they did not resolve," he said.
- Adolescents should be allowed to set limits commensurate with their ability.
"Teen-agers need to make mistakes," White maintains. "We frequently learn more from negative experiences than we do from positive ones. When you have a positive experience, the only thing it does for you is keep you in the same place. When you have a negative experience, it makes you take a look at yourself. If you don't have those negative experiences, you're going expect life to be a bowl of cherries.
"One of the most common laments I hear is, 'My parents don't want me to make the same mistakes they made, so they won't let me spend my money this way or go steady because they're afraid it's going to get me in trouble.'
"Most of us are not willing to be educators of our own children, to give them opportunities to grow. Adolescence is growing up, learning to take care of yourself. If the teen-ager shows he or she is responsible, allow them to take another step."
White emphasized, however, that teen-agers need to have ground rules which, like fences around an elementary school, "are there to delineate the space within which they will be safe."
"If they don't have some parameters around them of what is acceptable or not, they will create their own, and their own will be based upon what the peer group thinks."
Ground Rules Wanted
"Believe it or not," he added, "kids really do want ground rules, even though they'll say they don't."
- Teen-agers live in a world of the unreal much of the time. The world of fantasy and daydreaming substitutes for the world of doing, he said.
"Teen-agers are into how the world ought to be as opposed to the way it is, and so you have to recognize that some of the time kids will appear as 'airheads,' or out to lunch because sometimes they slip into the daydream world, that world of Walter Mitty."
- Time honored cliches are guaranteed to turn off any teen-ager.
Noting that the teen-agers of today are a product of the electronic age, White said they know how to sit in front of the TV set and tune out the commercials. "It's called selective attention in psychology: They put their attention where they want it and turn everything else off. So if a key word or phrase is a turn-off to a kid and you use that phrase, you're taking a great risk the kid is going to turn you off."
White provided a sampler of key turn-off phrases:
"How do you always manage to screw up so?"; "Why don't you think before you do something?"; "Sometimes you act like someone half your age"; "Act your age"; "When I was your age . . . ."
- Talk to them at the right time, in the right way, in the right place.
If, for example, your teen-age daughter is having a party at your house and by 11 p.m. the party is becoming rowdy, don't go downstairs and tell your daughter in front of her friends to cool it.
Instead, White said, call your daughter upstairs and tell her that because she's in charge of the party, she must take care of the problem.
Her friends will listen to her, White said, "and she won't lose face."
White acknowledged that "it's very frustrating talking with teen-agers, but I do think knowledge is power, and if you have an understanding of the dynamics of what's going on, you'll be able to sit down with your teen-agers and help them."