December 06, 2018
(+++) TEEN TIME (AGAIN)
A New Theory of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen. By Christa M. Santangelo, Ph.D. Seal Press. $14.99.
Teenagers are essentially two-year-olds a decade or so later, requiring parents to allow them the same sort of exploration they were allowed around age two while the parents practice meditation to calm themselves, keeping a small part of their brain in “aware” mode to be sure teens’ wide-ranging search does not result in significant harm. That is essentially the “new theory” of California clinical psychologist Christa M. Santangelo, which is not really a very new theory at all. Santangelo herself knows this: A New Theory of Teenagers has more footnotes than typical books for general readership, as Santangelo is at pains to show how her ideas incorporate and build upon those of many others.
Parents, understandably, will be most interested in what those ideas are and how exactly they work in practice. The “what” element is handled by Santangelo by dividing the book into seven “transformative strategy” chapters whose New Age-y titles are not, unfortunately, particularly helpful: “Endure Emotions,” “Enlarge the Lens,” “Don’t Grasp—Let Go,” Discover Profound Purpose,” “Contemplate Infinite Possibility,” “Heal Thyself,” and “Go Within.” Santangelo’s emphasis is on seeing conflict as a growth opportunity: the unending difficulties that are common between parents and teens, she argues, are the method by which teenagers form themselves into adults, and the job of parents is to accept the inevitability of those conflicts while being available when necessary to prevent or mitigate actual harm.
This sounds good, but as in so many prescriptions and proscriptions, the devil is in the details. Santangelo has what is essentially a one-size-fits-all approach to the frustration, anger, unhappiness and trauma that parents sooften feel from teens’ words and actions: meditate. A very Californian approach to difficulty, meditation is scarcely the panacea that Santangelo thinks it is, but her emphasis on it is quite strong. Again and again, A New Theory of Teenagers comes back to it: “Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, I urge you to give this exercise a chance. …This is the home of your soul. There is no fear here – only peace. I want you to imagine that a Spirit is now in your midst. You feel the profound love of this Spirit. …Let the love of this Spirit touch you. It reaches your fear, your sadness, your sense of separation.”
Those who find this guided approach and this style of writing congenial are the natural audience for Santangelo’s book. Others will find it superficial at best – doubly so because Santangelo is remiss in not showing exactly how her recommendations have actually worked in her clinical practice or could be expected to work in readers’ everyday, real-world life. For example, one of her many stories is about a woman she calls Lisa, who “drew the line at tattoos” because she was “the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were tattooed as part of the extermination process.” Lisa’s 17-year-old son “got a large image of his dog, face in a menacing growl, across his shoulder.” Santangelo says the tattoo “stood for his deep bond with his dog” and that “Lisa’s relationship to her family’s past was keeping her from being able to step back and let go appropriately.” Really? Santangelo apparently believes that one of the most horrific occurrences of modern times, which directly affected this family, should be downplayed for the sake of a teen’s “deep bond with his dog.” Or does she believe this? She states directly, “To be clear, I was not counseling Lisa to ‘accept the tattoo.’ Parents set the moral and behavioral directives.” But Santangelo never says what she did counsel Lisa to do, how she did recommend moral and behavioral directives be set, how she did help Lisa and her son reach across the abyss of the son’s tattoo. Again and again, Santangelo’s book frustrates in this manner: it lapses into generalities and platitudes when parents who pick it up are quite likely and quite rightly going to want specifics of what works, and what has worked in Santangelo’s experience. Saying that parents “need to allow your teen the space to become themselves [sic]” is simply not enough.
What is irritating in A New Theory of Teenagers is this repeated contrast between statements that are well-considered and practical applications that are missing. “I have found that the first step toward learning how to let go while also guiding and staying connected to your teen is to know your fears.” That makes sense, as does the partial list of typical parental fears that Santangelo supplies. But it fits poorly with a statement such as, “Teens use minor, not harmful, moments of deception to create distance and their own space as a developmentally appropriate movement away from parents.” But a great many deceptions are far from “minor” and “not harmful,” and they are the ones with which parents need more help than to be told, “When you learn to accept and embrace painful feelings, then true transformation can occur.”
The sixth of Santangelo’s chapters, “Heal Thyself,” is in many ways the core of this book. Here she urges “inviting the inner child to take form and speak” as “a handy tool to go back in time and talk about this place that often doesn’t get articulated but rather is repressed, denied, or acted out – often with your teen.” This is a valid psychoanalytic approach, but one that is virtually impossible to do without considerable therapeutic guidance. A glib statement that “this isn’t easy work” and another, a couple of pages later, saying that this “is slow, painstaking, yet ultimately deeply rewarding work” are ultimately valueless to readers of the book except insofar as they suggest that parents of teens – perhaps all parents of teens – need psychological therapy in order to help themselves and their children through the teenage years. Santangelo never says that outright, but that would indeed be a new theory, one going well beyond the facile notion of self-analysis mixed with meditation that is supposed to help parents cope with the extreme (scarcely minor) behaviors and activities of their teenaged children.