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Extraordinary Resilience

Psychiatrist Stuart Hauser answers questions about his new book, Out of the Woods, which chronicles four emotionally disturbed teenagers

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No, that's part of what's fun about doing research: you get surprised. When we went back at age 25, 11 years after we began, some of the interviewers came over to me and said how surprised they were that this or that person was doing well, that they never would have thought he or she was a former psychiatric patient. That put the bee in my bonnet to want to understand it better. The psychiatric medical model is around disease processes, what's gone wrong, what hasn't worked out. A colleague of mine many years ago said, “You psychiatrists have it easy studying what goes wrong, you really need to study how come anybody does well in the world, given what we face in our lives.” It was a wonderful question, and one that had always plagued me.

Who did you write the book for?

Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, religious groups, ministers and others that have to help kids in trouble, just so they could recognize that kids can get out of trouble. It's so easy to write a kid off as a bad. This is a book about optimism. We really wanted people to see the reason to have hope.

What lessons should they take away from the book?

Don't label kids, be optimistic that kids can be fluid. Recognize it's the kiss of death to think of a kid as a bad seed or trouble. Understand the incredible importance of relationships—the worst thing a person can do is cut off relations with a kid when he does the wrong thing. When a parent makes a mistake, take responsibility for the mistake and don't hold the kid at fault, and help kids learn how to take responsibility.

How should your study influence public policy?

Try to steer people in the getting-help direction rather than the getting-punished direction. When kids go to prison early it gives them the identity of being trouble and a failure rather than possibility. You put the label on, you put the kid in a bad environment, that makes the label stick even more. Do everything possible not to confirm a kid as delinquent. You can spot kids that are having trouble with social competence, and really try to help them learn those skills, not make them special ed or isolate them in any way, but develop their strengths in friendship and connecting with kids as well as adults. I've now seen enough beleaguered schoolteachers that have trouble being optimistic, because they just see so many impossible kids. We need to better train teachers and to have more teachers.

In the book you talk about how modern adolescent lives are dangerously overscheduled. What should the ideal adolescent life look like?

Kids should have time to think and plan and do things in their lives. A lot of parents are so eager to do the right thing that they really try to have the ballet lessons, the sports, and all of that, and there's just no time for a kid just to be by himself or to be inventive. The ideal life would be to have these enriching activities but not to overdo it. Having all these different lessons and classes to go to doesn't get a kid a chance to experiment, to try out new things. A kid also needs to have available adults—not hovering over him, but just adults around to help. It's not a neglectful life, but not an overprotective one either. You get very worried when kids don't have any room to move around and be able to think about things.

You finished this part of your study a while ago—how old are the kids now?

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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