Childhood to Adult: Bridging the Gap : Psychoanalyst Sees Adolescent Rebellion as Product of the Age

Times Staff Writer

The seeds of the 14-year-old's troubled adolescence, his psychotherapist said, were planted a decade ago when his parents divorced.

In the intervening years the boy had been shuttled from mother to father as each became frustrated with his dismal school performance, poor choice of friends and failure to abide by home rules.

Now, the youth was nearing successful completion of a three-month drug rehabilitation program at a Los Angeles hospital, the psychotherapist said.

However, living with his father upon his release was not an option because he had been expelled from the school district in which his father lives. And the therapist feared that the youth's return to his emotionally unstable mother would renew conflicts with her and start anew his downward spiral of self-destructive behavior.

What, if anything, he asked Bruno Bettleheim, could be done for the youth? The renowned child psychologist was the featured guest at a daylong seminar Saturday on resolving conflicts between adolescents and adults.

Like Many Others

Unfortunately, Bettleheim replied, the teen-ager was like all too many of today's troubled adolescents with weak family support systems. The only thing that could be done was to refer him to a social service agency which might be able to find him a foster home or a place in a group home.

This was but one of the difficult choices Bettleheim wrestled with during the seminar sponsored by UC Irvine's Extension program. Most of the 45 participants, who each had paid $75, were psychotherapists, social workers and nurses who work with troubled adolescents. Only a handful of parents were present seeking ways to improve relations with their teen-agers.

"Adolescents can be very charming," said the 82-year-old psychoanalyst, "but they can also be very difficult and challenging.

"In the Western world there has been an uneasiness about adolescents, especially nowadays," said Bettleheim, a retired University of Chicago professor of psychology and psychiatry who now lives in the Portola Valley south of San Francisco.

"We really don't know what to do with them because they're no longer children, but not yet adults. Our (adult) attitude is: Go away and come back in 15 years, and then we'll know what to do with them."

"Though adults don't openly acknowledge these feelings, adolescents sense it; and they resent it," said Bettleheim, who did pioneering work with autistic children. He has written about them and other children in such classics of modern psychology as "Love is Not Enough," "Dialogues with Mothers," "The Empty Fortress," and "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales."

Until the 20th Century, Bettleheim explained, adolescents played a well-defined, productive role. By age 12, most adolescents were put to work earning incomes for their families by toiling in mills and mines or as craft apprentices and field hands. Life expectancy was just 35, Bettleheim said, and, therefore, people had to start to earn a living as soon as possible.

"Physical labor through the ages powered the work force," Bettleheim said, "and only with the Industrial Revolution (that became widespread about 100 years ago) was it possible for society to keep 13- to 20-year-olds at home."

This modern dependence of adolescents on their parents, in Bettleheim's view, is largely the source of the generational conflict. That conflict has been exacerbated, Bettleheim said, by the fact that while in the prolonged childhood they're supposed to be living, adolescents are nevertheless maturing sexually earlier than ever.

Time on Their Hands

In the 1900 U.S. Census, Bettleheim said, the average age at which girls first underwent menstruation was 14 years and three months. National censuses taken since have recorded an age drop of about three months each decade. Today, girls first undergo menstruation at about age 12.

"Since adolescents today have no responsibilities, are smarter and maturing faster sexually," Bettleheim continued, "is it any wonder that they pass the time between 12 and 20 in adolescent revolt?"

Arguing that many high school students "don't want to be there, and don't need to be there," Bettleheim said much adolescent conflict with parents could be lessened by reducing the number of years students are required to attend school.

"Until the Great Depression (of the 1930s) school stopped at the end of the 10th grade, when the adolescent was 16. Because of the high unemployment then existing, the labor unions successfully pressured to have the 12th grade added to take adolescents out of the labor market. Today, the 12th grade continues to serve this purpose, plus keeping adolescents off the streets.

"At the University of Chicago, where I taught most of my career, in the 1930s the 'early college program' was begun. Students could enter (it) after completing the 10th grade.

Service Program Proposed

"About half the freshman class was made up of these students, and the other half was made up of those who'd finished the 12th grade. Studies showed there was absolutely no difference in the academic performance in college of these two groups of students."

For adolescents who are not interested in college, Bettleheim proposes that a two-year-long public service program, like the federal government's Civilian Conservation Corps of the '30s be established for 16- and 17-year-olds.

"I don't know if society is ready for something like this," acknowledged Bettleheim, "but until a program like this is instituted, many adolescents will continue to feel that they have no place or function in society and continue to be in conflict with their parents."

Bettleheim also believes there would be less conflict between adolescents and their parents if parents responded to the teens' natural curiosity by being more willing to discuss with their teen-agers what they do on the job. To reciprocate, teens would be more forthcoming in telling their parents about their lives outside the house, Bettleheim contends.

Winning Their Confidence

"The basic problem adults must overcome in order to be able to deal with adolescents on a practical basis is to win their confidence," said Bettleheim, who noted he raised not only his own three children but another 300 during his 29 years as head of the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children.

"This cannot be done with sticks or physical force. It can only be done through parents' inner convictions, which they can use as a model to internalize in their adolescents their own values."

However, Bettleheim believes parental self-revelation should not extend to telling teens about their own youthful activities which they don't want their children to engage in, such as past use of illegal drugs.

A high school teacher said her students could not understand why their parents forbade them to use drugs, when their parents, teens of the '60s, had told them about their own former drug experimentation. The teacher asked Bettleheim how she could explain such parental behavior to her students.

"If I had been these parents, I would not have told my children about my former drug use," responded Bettleheim.

"Why would these parents tell their children they once experimented with drugs with no harmful effects, and then turn around and forbid their own kids from doing so? These kinds of 'double-bind messages' just cause these children to feel that their parents are expecting contradictory things from them--that no matter what they do, their parents will consider it wrong."

Seminar participant Joyce Stone of Irvine counsels unwed, teen-age mothers on ways to keep their babies because, she said, she believes many of them would make good mothers. She asked Bettleheim what advice he would give such mothers.

"In my opinion, it is very questionable whether pregnant teen-aged girls should be advised to keep their babies because of all the difficulties they will face," Bettleheim said.

However, except in situations where the mother's religious beliefs require her to keep and raise the child, Bettleheim maintained that parents or therapists should limit their input to offering support and advice.

"Whether the pregnant teen-ager decided to keep her baby should be a decision ultimately left up to her. You should not interject your own feelings about adulthood into the planning of young women like this.

Letting the Girl Decide

"Before the baby is born and after the baby is born are very different situations. So, the girl should be allowed to make her decision after the baby is born. The baby easily can be adopted after birth."

Bettleheim said he also would take the same "non-judgmental" view on abortion. He would let the girl, except where her religious convictions dictated otherwise, make up her own mind about whether to have an abortion or not.

More important, in Bettleheim's view, is for the girl's parents to attempt to find out why their daughter had an unplanned pregnancy. He believes an unplanned pregnancy is a symptom of more deep-seated emotional problems that should receive immediate parental attention and psychotherapy before they worsen.

This is in keeping with Bettleheim's belief that a parent's successful relationship with an adolescent is established by the parent's attempting to see the world from the teen's perspective.

Only then, Bettleheim said, can the parent subtly attempt to cajole the adolescent into seeing things from the parent's perspective.

Appeal to Fairness

Bettleheim gave a concrete example of how his philosophy works in response to a perennial question: Is it unreasonable to expect a child to be home at night by a certain hour?

"Once, my son was supposed to be home by midnight," recalled Bettleheim. "He came in late. I told him: 'I hope you had a good time. But as you can see, I had to sit up with your mother trying to calm her down; your being late had made her a nervous wreck.' My son said he was sorry, that he wouldn't do it again, and that was the end of it.

"If I'd taken the approach of asking him didn't he think it was unreasonable that he was coming in at that hour, he would have just shut his ears to what I had to say. How could it have been unreasonable from his viewpoint to have come in at that hour since he had been out doing something very reasonable--having a good time?

"Instead, I first had to tell him that I understood from his viewpoint that he had stayed out late because he was having a good time. But I also had to let him know that in the process he had made me and his mother suffer for his having a good time. Only by making him see the unfairness of his having a good time at our expense, could I make him see things from my viewpoint ."

Bettleheim acknowledged parents and therapists often have to go to extraordinary and ingenious lengths to restore a tattered adult-adolescent relationship.

Seek Cooperation

"The first thing you have to do is to get the adolescent to cooperate. For example, if a kid steals, never say: 'Stop stealing.' It'll just turn him off.

"My approach would be to appear to join forces with him by asking: 'What's wrong? You keep getting caught. Let's put our heads together to see how you can keep from getting caught.'

"I'm not actually going to help him not get caught, but to get his cooperation I have to have him talk to me freely about his stealing; I have to get some idea of why he steals certain items and not others.

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