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Point of View - it 4.2

Point of View

William Goldberg

My 14-year-old daughter used to be a loving, obedient child; but lately, after my wife and I divorced, she has grown moody and rebellious. She refuses to do her homework and has begun sneaking out at night to meet friends she won't introduce to me. I heard an ad on the radio for a program that guarantees to permanently make a difficult child respectful and obedient. How do they do this?

There are many legitimate treatment programs for emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, or addicted youth. Usually these programs are connected to regulated hospitals, mental-health centers, or treatment centers.

The term troubled-teen industry often refers to unregulated, poorly supervised programs that offer identical “treatment” for children who display a wide range of behavior that includes, but is not limited to, drug experimentation, emotional difficulties, eating disorders, gender issues, or even mild teenage rebellion. Controversial schools tend to promise parents that, for a fee, the schools will help rebellious or problematic teenagers become well-adjusted members of society. Some programs have been accused of incarcerating children, limiting their contact with the outside world (including their parents), denying them education, and abusing them emotionally, physically, and, sometimes, sexually [at least cite Maia Szalavitz, but research citation would be nice too].

Although there are differences between the troubled-teen industry and cults, there are many similarities, and survivors of both of these systems intuitively perceive a great overlap. Those teens who were imprisoned in these programs recognize similarities with second-generation cult survivors because their parents were sold a bill of goods. Their behavior was reinterpreted to the parents, and the reality of life within the program was hidden from the parents; but the teens experienced the brutal reality of the programs.

My clinical experience and that of colleagues supports this view of the troubled-teen industry. Although clinical generalizations do not speak to all cases, they do help us understand commonalities among many programs.

The most obvious parallel is that, in both teen programs and cults, there tends to be a powerful leader whose grandiose vision of himself has no limits. There is nothing that the leader admits to being unsure of, and there is no boundary that he won’t break to assert his power. Concepts of decency, ethics, or the rights of others are viewed as petty annoyances rather than moral imperatives.

The second obvious commonality is the existence of a group of followers who the leadership treats as inferior, sinful, ignorant, and uncivilized. They are lesser beings who have forfeited their fundamental human rights. Both cult leaders and the heads of the troubled-teen programs establish a standard of acceptable behavior and belief that is self-serving, self-justifying, and self-perpetuating. You need to be in this cult because you can’t trust your instincts and your own sense of morality. Similarly, you need to be in this program because you’re an uncivilized animal who needs to be controlled; and the proof that you’re an uncivilized animal who needs to be controlled is the fact that you’re in this program. You basically are a bad person who must admit to how bad you are in order to recover.

Another parallel is that one of the aspects of cults and the troubled-teen industry is the degree to which the victims of both tend to accept their degradation and to identify with their oppressors. In most cults, the leadership views cult members’ sense of personal integrity (i.e., that they should be treated with dignity and respect) as sinful, evil, or selfish. A parallel process occurs in the troubled-teen programs, when truth and the needs of the individual are both sacrificed because of the ideology of the “program.”

All the victims of the troubled-teen industry with whom I have worked have told me that they lied in order to survive the program. Since the assumption was that everyone in the program had committed heinous and depraved acts, and that they would lie to conceal these facts, they were forced to “confess” to the crimes they had supposedly committed. The more lurid these crimes were, the better. They fabricated stories of incest, drug dealing, bestiality, and stealing from their families. If a victim/prisoner would tell the truth and say that she had not committed these acts, she would be accused of lying and would be punished. The way to earn privileges would be to confabulate past acts of depravity—the more wicked or perverted, the better.

Therefore, truth was defined as a lie and was punished, while lying was defined as truth and was rewarded. After several years of this Through-the-Looking-Glass existence, it is no wonder that some of the victims/prisoners temporarily lost the ability to distinguish between reality and pseudo reality.

Another parallel is that in both the cults and the troubled-teen industry, the leadership and the victims who have risen in the ranks to leadership positions are taught to emulate the leader’s arrogance, cruelty, and abuse. They learn not only that their abusive actions are justified, but that they can be rationalized as an act of kindness because they keep the cult member/program participant/prisoner from backsliding. Therefore, acts of physical, emotional, and spiritual brutality are really displays of kindness. In this manner, the middle-management cult members or troubled-teen leaders are able to displace the anger and hostility that they feel toward the leadership and transfer those feelings to other victims.

My final parallel is to point out the fact that, just as there are noncultic religious, therapeutic, and political groups that are legitimate, helpful, or comforting to people, there are also good, helpful programs for troubled teens that don’t strip them of their dignity and civil liberties, and that can help them. Not all groups are cults, and not all programs are bad.

For more information about this issue, Help At Any Cost, by Maia Szalavitz, and the Web site for the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth are both excellent resources.

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