Material World: The Troubled-Teens Business

ON THE internet I keep running across the same image – the scowling face of a teenage boy – accompanied by the words: Fix Defiant ODD Children. It is an ad for a “Total Transformation Program” that will “empower” you to “stop defiance, backtalk and lying” and “regain control of your child, your family and your life”.

ODD, in case you’re wondering, is the “diagnosis” that psychiatrists now pin on disobedient youngsters: Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Until recently no one had ever heard of it.

Numerous programs to “fix” disobedient kids are on offer to American parents. Many are residential programs run by private entrepreneurs in “boot camps” and other locked facilities located both inside the US and outside (in Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, etc.). Or you can send your child off on a gruelling “wilderness expedition” in the harsh desert landscape of the Southwest.

Force and deception are routinely used to trap children in these programs, which usually entail physical and/or emotional cruelty inflicted in the name of “tough love”.

Abuse and deprivation sometimes result in death – in particular, when complaints of pain and exhaustion are not believed. (See, for instance, Torturing Teens for Fun and Profit.) In many places, victims are made to attack and humiliate one another and extract “confessions” (often fabricated) in spectacles reminiscent of “struggle meetings” in Maoist China.

Maia Szalavitz, author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead Books, 2006), estimates that 10-20,000 teens are held in several hundred abusive programs at any one time. The programs are very lucrative business ventures, as fees are high while costs are kept low. Total profits are thought to be well over a billion dollars a year.

Why so desperate?

What makes people so desperate that they will abandon their own children to the “tough love” of strangers – and pay through the nose for the privilege? Parents are, of course, alarmed at the perils their children face – perils that even if exaggerated by sensationalist media reports are real enough. They worry especially that their children will start using street drugs. Many feel unable to cope with such problems and easily fall prey to any huckster who claims to have a solution. The decline in the economic position of working people over the last few decades has made it even harder for them to cope. Compensating for falling real wage rates by working longer hours or even  taking two jobs, parents are left with little time or energy to devote to bringing up their children.

Another factor is the strength of religious fundamentalism in large areas of the US. The “tough love” approach (which also includes corporal punishment, for example) is especially prevalent among fundamentalists. Many abusive programs call themselves Christian. Authoritarian relations within the family are an important part of the  fundamentalist creed. Preachers tell parents not to feel obliged to tolerate or respond to “backtalk” – in other words, to listen to and reason with their children.

Targeted by advertisers

But are children inherently more difficult to bring up nowadays? Doesn’t every generation imagine that their children are especially hard to understand and deal with? Be that as it may, there are good reasons for thinking that the task facing parents has become even more daunting. One significant change concerns advertising. In the past, except for items like sweets and chocolates, advertisers aimed only at adults. Now, as Juliet B. Schor describes in her book, Born to Buy (Scribner, 2004), children are a primary target of advertising and marketing campaigns. Exposure to these campaigns makes children anxious and obsessed with status. To acquire and maintain status they must nag their hard-pressed parents to buy them lots of expensive junk. Otherwise their peers will look down on them. Even apart from the anti-adult messages conveyed by some ads, this puts children and parents on a direct collision course. When some relatives of mine refused to buy something demanded by their son, he lay down on the floor of the store and screamed until they gave in – just to escape the embarrassing situation.

Attention deficit disorders

Then we should bear in mind the harm done to children’s mental capacities by long periods in front of a television. Research shows that the more hours of TV watched per day the more likely a child is to suffer from an attention deficit disorder. Video games have a similar destructive effect. How can a parent reason with a child who is unable to pay sustained attention?

This does not mean that TV and video games are solely responsible for attention deficit disorders. There is evidence that toxins in the environment such as organophosphates contribute to these disorders by disrupting thyroid hormones (Philip and Alice Shabecoff, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, Chelsea Green Publishing 2010, pp. 92—95).

Profit at both ends

Many of the underlying causes of the difficulty of bringing up today’s youngsters – from the excessively long hours worked by their parents to TV advertising and environmental toxins – stem directly from the profit drive of capitalist business.

The same relentless and remorseless drive for profits underlies the fraudulent promises to “fix” ODD and other supposed mental disorders by means of dangerous drugs or abusive programs.

So, capitalists make huge profits at both ends, both in causing and in pretending to solve the problem. It is all good business for them.

And it all counts as “economic activity” for inclusion in the GDP statistics that prove how prosperous, productive and highly developed the country is.


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