Teen Heroes with Feet of Clay: The Dilemma of a Pop-Culture Psychotherapist By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 8/7/18 - 1:58 PM

Recently scanning the Internet, I was dismayed although sadly not particularly surprised by the glaring headline which read “Demi Lovato rushed to hospital for possible overdose.” My first response was “damn, poor kid!”

The next flurry of thoughts closely paralleled my own varied life roles. The father in me remembered my kids’ shock upon learning that this same celebrity, former Disney actor/singer used to cut herself. The pop-culture author in me reflected on the writing I’ve done around superheroes who are often deeply flawed characters. Finally, the teen therapist in me wondered once again how to bring the stories of popular culture icons like Demi Lovato into the therapy room. As examples of the challenges and pitfalls of high achievement and celebrity? As cautionary tales to those who would model their lives and mold their dreams in the images of superstars? Or simply as examples of people more alike than different from them, who struggle to regulate anxiety, depression and the accompanying demons by using, cutting and killing themselves.

Heroes abound in popular culture, exceeded only by those who have fallen hard and as such are in no short supply. As I watch the 2018 Tour de France, I remember Lance Armstrong’s substance-enhanced fall from grace. As I read more deeply into the life of Demi Lovato, I think about Justin Bieber’s near-death automobile escapades, Britney Spears’ seemingly unending brush with the dark side and the terrible fate that Heath Ledger, aka the Joker met; not to mention the myriad music legends whose lives were cut short by their own hands- Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and the artist who will forever be known as Prince.

Just today, a soon-to-be twenty-year-old asked me (in my professorial role) a poignant question about adolescent identity formation. A question she would like to have asked her developmental psychology professor, I believe she was reflecting on her own journey to personality coherence on the road to adulthood. We concluded together that there are many influences that shape who we are and who we become during our formative years, not the least among which are popular culture figures both great and small, evolved and base, and those who succeed and ultimately who fail…terribly.

In his book, Breaking through to Teens: Psychotherapy for the New Adolescence, Ron Taffel encourages all those who work with teens to be familiar with popular culture and its many and often strange inhabitants. He challenges clinicians to regularly assess their PCIQ, or popular culture IQ. As a therapist who specializes with children and teens, I couldn’t agree more strongly. I worked with a troubled seven-year-old who had been alternately diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disturbance. He taught me about the struggles Japanese anime character Naruto faced, and in so doing provided me key insights to helping him. And it was the tortured relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker that assisted me in my work with a depressed and alienated adopted pre-teen. Each of these pop-culture characters, regardless of their fictional origins, struggled in very real ways.

So, the next time you have the opportunity of working with a child or teen who identifies with a figure of popular culture--whether fictional or non, elevated or fallen; be prepared to explore the meaning of that identification, whether positive or negative. And be prepared, as I have learned, to sit patiently at the intersection of that client’s and their hero’s relationship in order to gain a deeper understanding of your young client as they wrestle to make sense of themselves, the world around them and the characters within it. Lessons abound.  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, Child & Adolescent Therapy