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by William Glasser
HarperCollins, 2002
Review by Kevin M. Purday on Dec 30th 2002

Unhappy Teenagers

This book is in many ways a very moving witness to the indisputable help that the author has given to numerous families over the years. William Glasser is better known in the U.S.A. than on the other side of the Atlantic but the problems he deals with are to be found everywhere and the suggested solutions he comes up with are universally relevant.

Glasser is a psychiatrist who has thought deeply about the nature and role of psychiatry. In the days before the debate about the nature of mental illness really got off the ground, he had decided that much of so-called mental illness is not organically based, i.e. it has no basis in any physical or chemical abnormality of the brain. He became an ardent supporter of Peter Breggin, often called the Ralph Nader of psychiatry, who over the last ten years has issued a stream of books attacking the (mis)use of drugs and electro-convulsive therapy in the treatment of mental illness. In Europe, Professor Thomas Szasz is better known than Breggin but both have made impassioned pleas for all mental illnesses to be treated as reactions to deeply rooted unhappiness, except where there is indisputable evidence of organic disease as, for example, in Alzheimer’s. Those reactions may not be the most helpful in the long run but they are the only reactions that the unhappy person can come up with. It is the job of the psychiatrist and the therapist to help that person transform their situation and react in a way that is, in the long term, positive and life enhancing. That is precisely what this book sets out to do.

Thirty five years ago Glasser set up the Institute for Reality Therapy whose aim was to help people direct their own lives, make more effective choices and in general cope constructively with the stresses of life. Trained therapists established a relationship of trust with those seeking help and then helped them to discover what they really wanted and to plan how to achieve it. In the 1990s Glasser added a further dimension to Reality Therapy with the development of his Choice Theory and it is this that forms the foundation for his book Unhappy Teenagers. Put simply, Choice Theory states that we are all trying to satisfy five basic needs: Love/Belonging, Freedom, Fun, Power and Survival. The basic tenet of the theory is that the only behaviour we can control is our own. Applied to the parents and teachers of teenagers the message is simple: stop trying to control them; it won’t work and all you will succeed in doing is alienating them and destroying your relationship with them. Applied to the teenagers themselves, the message is that they must assume responsibility for their actions while supportive parents and teachers accept them for who they are.

This message is clearly and often emotionally delivered by a series of case studies: Kim and Jody, mother and teenage daughter; Ken and John, cardiologist and his teenage son; Donald, Robert, Curtis and Bob who are respectively a school counsellor, a disruptive teenager, a supportive fellow teenager and another school counsellor; Roger, Susan and Teri, father, mother and a teenage daughter; Jackie and Joan, the daughter from hell and a long suffering mother; Starr, Sara and Ed, an anorexic teenage girl and her parents; Craig and Maureen, a diagnosed schizophrenic high school student and his mother; and Fred, a divorced father of three teenage girls, a man almost overwhelmed by emotional problems. Most of these case studies occupy a chapter and some two. There are also chapters on the fallacy of control attempts, choice theory, the failure of many educational establishments and the important role the school counsellor can play – a chapter largely written by Glasser’s wife, Carleen, herself a school counsellor.

This book would be of enormous help to anyone whose children are approaching or are in the course of their teenage years; even those with offspring in their troublesome twenties may find it useful! The advice is sound – your relationship with them is more important than that they lead their lives in the way you want. The case studies contain conversations between Glasser and both the teenagers and the parents. These are sufficiently detailed to act as exemplars for the reader. It is also a book that should be on the shelves of every school counsellor although I suspect that it would spend little time on the shelf, as it would be on loan to one set of parents after another!

Is there a down side to the book? Well, yes, unfortunately there is. Reading it is rather like watching commercial television with numerous advertisements for Glasser’s books. Doubtlessly, his books have much to recommend them but the sales spiel which punctuates this book is distinctly irritating as is the heavy handed advertising in Appendix A which lists his publications for the last five years and reminds readers that they can all be obtained from William Glasser Inc. which is housed at the William Glasser Institute (address, phone number, fax number, e-mail address and website all supplied). Appendix B is a further bout of advertising for his books along with video and audio materials. Such overt commercialism sits ill with the serious intentions of the book but is of a piece with the egotism Glasser frequently displays throughout the book. This is perhaps most obvious in his disdain for much of the educational system: “...there are serious flaws in the school system that make it impossible for many students to feel successful in school. Just to mention one of these concerns, as long as we have the ABCDF grading system or its equivalent, very few students who do not get a B or higher can feel successful in school.” (p.19) However, instead of a reasoned analysis of the flawed system, we have what is basically an appeal to his status: “I have spent more time working in schools for the last forty years than almost any other expert and I am a recognised authority on education.” (p.131) As you may have guessed, Glasser has written a book called Every Student Can Succeed (only available through William Glasser Inc. at the William Glasser Institute). What you might not have guessed is that failing schools can apply to undergo a special Glasser training system that, upon successful completion, entitles them to call themselves Glasser Quality Schools. All this is a bit much.

Despite these criticisms, the book is essentially sound and should be of enormous help to many parents, teachers and counsellors who are torn between trying to change teenagers’ destructive and frequently self-destructive behaviour on the one hand and yet on the other hand are aware that in doing so all they are accomplishing is the destruction of their own relationship with those teenagers. If you are in that situation, please read the book. You may even find the commercialism and egotism far less irritating than this reviewer did!

 

 

© 2002 Kevin M. Purday                      

Kevin M. Purday teaches at Worthing Sixth Form College, in the UK, and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.