Seven years ago, a colleague and I attended an annual conference in Washington DC called the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium. We were excited about meeting one of the key note speakers, John Gottman, a marriage and relationship researcher and expert whom we learned about while in grad school. We kept seeing a man of similar stature walking through the hallways of the hotel but were disappointed each time to realize that he wasn’t John. Upon arriving home and looking at the conference Facebook page, we discovered that the guy who reminded us of John Gottman was actually Steven Spielberg! We had been so fixated on meeting a certain psychologist (whom most people have never heard of) that we failed to recognize and have an opportunity to meet one of the top directors of our time!
I was curious to know why Steven was at a psychology conference. In my research, I read that his films have an element of psychological sophistication to them. Through cinema, Steven often incorporates challenges he has faced in his life, such as parent-child discord, parents who are reluctant or absent, and bullying. Although they depict such challenges, his films are designed to be optimistic overall and usually have a childlike sense of wonder and hope to them. Steven, along with many other directors, writers, producers, game makers, etc., design their artistic craft to appeal to a person’s psyche, by making it relate-able, exciting and moving. If we can find a way to utilize the powerful imagery, stories, metaphors, messages, and icons of pop culture, we too will access a plethora of resources for growth, change and healing.
My intention is not to encourage more screen time as it is my opinion that kids have way too much of that already. But pop culture, if we like it or not, is very appealing to children and teens. The goal is to meet them where they are and to use pop culture to assist in creating a more balanced routine and ultimately cut down on the amount of screen time moving forward. In this article, we will explore how I have used pop culture while working with children/teens: to help develop and enhance the relationship, to gather information, and (in part 2 of the article) to help facilitate positive change in their lives.
Developing and enhancing the relationship:
Finding common ground or a shared interest with a child/teen makes creating a sage and comforting environment significantly easier. Asking a child or teen about his or her favorite show, band, video game, and/or sports team can generate dialogue. If you know what they are actually talking about it can lead to a more engaging discussion. I started playing Minecraft because that’s what most of my younger clients were playing (to be honest I still play it every few days and find it rather relaxing). My knowledge of that game has paid dividends for connecting with kids. But even if you don’t know what the child/teen is referring to, it’s important to have a genuine curiosity in what he or she is saying and be willing to explore the different areas of interest. Even if you don’t enjoy it or agree with it, we need to be interested in pop culture because our children and teenagers are interested in it and we are interested in them. (Note: I am not advising that you should explore any aspects of pop culture that are morally offensive to you.)
Working with children and teenagers involves a relentless pursuit to uncover positive traits and indicators of resiliency. Once you know what shows, games and songs the child/teen is interested in and have explored them yourself, go more in-depth by learning about their perception of them. What do the pop culture preferences say about them? I typically do a value clarification exercise with my clients. Our values need to be our compass for navigating through difficult situations; if we foster our values we feel good, if we contradict them then we can feel bad.
If a client is unsure what values are most important to them, I often explore what their favorite Netflix shows are. I once saw a teen who was referred to me due to intense behavioral issues and he was on the verge of being kicked out of school. During our intake session I learned that he was a big fan of the Walking Dead. I was thrilled to find out that his favorite character was Daryl (who is loyal, caring, reliable, tough and calm) and his least favorite character was Nicolas (who is two-sided, cowardly, and self-centered). His preferences told me about the values and traits he has, aspires to have, or at the very least, respects.
The questions you can ask are endless! Ask about what they like or don’t like about the plot or story-line. Empower them to think critically; it’s an important life enhancing skill that is often underutilized in our childhood and youth. If they are playing a video game, focus on how they play the game; the skills that are entailed to be successful in the game can be transferred to life’s challenges.
In part 2, we will explore practical ways in which I’ve used pop culture to facilitate positive change in the lives of the children and teenagers I work with. Stay tuned!