Media outlets around the world have been captivated by Canadian pop star Justin Bieber’s latest tussle with the law, but a much wider audience finds itself engrossed by the singer’s struggles with himself.
Bieber’s increasingly erratic public behaviour, escalating bouts of temper and brazen use of both legal and illegal substances are an all-too familiar narrative for parents who have watched their own teenaged offspring travel down the same treacherous path.
Their children may not have to contend with constant media attention, a peer group of potential enablers or the pressures of global stardom. Certainly they haven’t been featured in the media urinating into buckets, slumbering in Brazilian brothels or drag-racing Lamborghinis en route to a charge of Driving Under the Influence, as Bieber has in recent months.
But parents say the issues at the core of most celebrity struggles can resonate in even the most everyday circumstances.
Hollie Pollard watches Bieber’s travails with a mixture of sadness and empathy. The pop star’s public struggles remind her forcibly of the years she spent trying to bring her 16-year-old daughter back from the brink of a crippling mental health crisis.
Her child never touched the substances or mixed with the stars that have figured in Bieber’s story. But her personality disorder and uncontrollable anger caused turmoil all the same.
Pollard’s daughter, isolated from fellow students due to her growing outbursts, increasingly broke rules and challenged authority until she wound up threatening her teachers with a weapon.
Watching young celebrities spiral out of control, Pollard said, always reminds her of that terrifying phase with her own child.
“I feel for them and I feel for their parents,” Pollard said in a telephone interview from Toronto. “We recognize the challenges for that person, and we recognize that the likelihood of getting help is pretty slim unless somebody steps in.”
For many troubled teens, the only ones on hand to offer the necessary support are the parents themselves, Pollard said.
Youth-oriented facilities to treat mental illness or addiction are scarce, she said, adding her daughter had to spend months at home waiting for a spot to open up in one of the few centres that do exist.
That wait, she said, can be challenging for parents struggling to determine what’s normal teenage behaviour, both in general in their child’s specific case.
Making that call isn’t easy for the professionals either.
Dr. Marshall Korenblum, Chief Psychiatrist at Toronto’s Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families, said rebellion is a normal part of growing up for teenagers of all walks of life.
A healthy skepticism towards rules and authority, he said, helps teens establish their own identity and ought to be nurtured within reason.
“That’s the job of teenagers to question adults, question authority, ask ‘why are we doing things that way,’” Korenblum said. “That’s healthy, that’s necessary for society to evolve. Otherwise the status quo would be preserved forever.”
When things cross a line, Korenblum said, is when a teen’s behaviour becomes dangerous to either themselves or the people around them. Unfortunately for some care providers, that trend appears increasingly common.
Korenblum said the teenage brain is almost pre-programmed for reckless behaviour, since centres controlling emotions and impulsivity develop significantly more quickly than the frontal lobe regulating judgment and restraint.
“The analogy has been made that the teenage brain is like a car in which the gas pedal has been pushed to the floor and the brakes have not yet been fully developed,” he said.
Gordon Hay, executive director of teen treatment facility Venture Academy, said he’s seen a rise in such dangerous behaviour in the 13 years since the residential program has been open.
The antics of youthful celebrities such as Bieber or Britney Spears, he said, have gone a long way towards skewing perceptions of what’s acceptable behaviour.
Rampant coverage of youth outbursts, depression and intoxication, he said, has led to a growing sense that such behaviours are part and parcel of any teenage experience.
Substance abuse and self-harm in particular, he said, have increased markedly since the school’s inception. Fully half of all applicants report cutting themselves now compared to just one or two applicants a year when the program launched, he said.
“Those types of behaviours are almost moving towards being acceptable,” he said. “It seems like the message often is that some of those behaviours are being classified as normal. Just because they are on the increase, for example suicidal thoughts, self-harm . . . does not negate the seriousness of that behaviour.”
The flip side, experts said, is that celebrity scandals can help open the doors of communication between troubled teens and the parents trying to guide them.
Pollard said such opportunities to break ground are crucial, adding regular discussion was key to her daughter’s eventual recovery.
Pollard sat down with her child each day to tackle day-to-day issues and set short-term goals, which were sometimes as modest as having a shower.
This strategy kept her daughter grounded as she waited for anger management treatment and moved the healing process along when help finally came.
Today, she still seizes every opportunity to reinforce acceptable boundaries, and discussing the struggles of fellow teens can sometimes be instructive.
“These things are scary to watch, but as a parent, when these kinds of things do happen, they’re conversation openers with your own kids,” she said.