By Gail Jennes
January 19, 1976 12:00 PM

Probably more than anyone else, Robert Coles understands America’s youth. The rumpled 46-year-old Harvard child psychiatrist has listened to young people as they talked and drew pictures in urban ghettos, on Indian reservations, in icy Eskimo communities and among the privileged split-levels of suburbia. His research has produced 25 books and 500 articles, and Dr. Coles is now at work on the fourth and fifth volumes of his master-work, Children of Crisis. The son of a Yorkshire-born Jewish immigrant and an Iowa farm girl, Coles himself is the father of three sons aged 5 to 11. Clutching the box of Crayolas which he offers to his young interview subjects, Coles sat down in the study of his Concord, Mass. home to discuss youth and psychic stress with Gail Jennes of PEOPLE.

What is the terrain through which youth passes during the shift from adolescence to maturity?

The crucial questions a young person faces in any society are: How am I going to live my life, where and with whom? What kind of work will I do? When I get up in the morning, where will I go? How will I spend my day? Will I live alone, get married, or will I live with someone but not marry? These days we must ask, will that person be a man or woman? Will I go to college or will I take a job? If so, is there one available, what are the conditions under which I will work? These are the issues essential to rich, poor, middle class, black, white, Chicano, Indian, Eskimo.

Why is adolescence so fraught with stress and moments of instability?

Conditions are in a state of flux. We haven’t seen this degree of economic uncertainty with its rising unemployment rate since the Depression. Young people cannot take for granted a relatively promising job market. Even the middle-and upper-middle-class children have felt this “edge.” The hopefulness that characterized American life for them—and to a degree for the poor—no longer exists.

How has this changed?

In the ’60s there were channels for idealism like the Peace Corps and VISTA. Now young people grow up to see a morally corrupt President and Vice-President go down in disgrace. They find that the FBI has been deliberately planting all kinds of false things. Whether a young person is interested in politics or not, the cynicism and corruption of American political life are bound to depress anyone who takes even peripheral notice. The curbed job market and high unemployment rate affect even the Ivy League campuses. And among black youth in some ghettos, the unemployment rate is 40 percent to 50 percent. No wonder many young people wonder. No wonder they turn to Zen Buddhism and religious Messianic movements. It’s a desperate effort to escape some of the social, political and economic realities and find solace and moral support.

Are young people suicide-prone during this period?

There is an eternal melancholy in youth as they struggle with sexual drives, who they are and what they will become. I think there is an increase in depression and confusion recently because of youth’s heightened sensitivity to moral and ethical questions. Since they’re not so jaded as older people, they tend to be more idealistic and questioning, more vulnerable to doubt and hesitation.

Do the stresses differ between the sexes?

There’s no longer the clear-cut sanction for “masculine” and “feminine” roles at a time when young people are trying to figure out who they are. For a 13-year-old trying to figure out, “Am I a man or a woman and what does it mean?” it’s an added burden when society says, “Well, we’re not sure.”

Is the present sexual freedom imposed on young people too much for them?

At times it is, and it’s sad. Teenagers need time to discover where they’re going and what they’re about. Parents and teachers should take a stand. Young people desperately need to know what their parents believe in. Some parents are so intimidated by existing trends that they cannot sit down with their children and tell them firmly what they believe and want from them. If young people feel parents stand only for prevailing social trends, they are in a moral swampland.

Are certain social or racial groups specially prone to depression?

The incidence of severe psychological disturbance in young black people is very high. Depression, withdrawal, drugs, antisocial activity, violence are somehow related to the fact of high unemployment among black youth. The same is true for Chicano and Indian youth, who have a high suicide and alcoholism rate. It’s appalling.

How should one handle a troubled friend?

As in all human affairs, take seriously what a person says. If a person begins to lose his, or her, appetite, can’t sleep and feels low, you should respond. Try to talk about it with the person, which Lord knows is what we all want from one another—some sense of companionship and friendliness. You don’t need a psychiatrist to know that. If necessary, call in a doctor.

Why the cynicism of youth today?

If we’re brought up not to be interested in others, if indeed we are taught only the cult of oneself, particularly the cult of one’s psychological self, it is sad. If depression is one illness, there is another prevalent in American life: malignant self-centeredness, smug self-cultivation.

But youthful skepticism is “in” these days. Are there any dangers?

A certain kind of skepticism is necessary, but it can soon become sour suspicion of everyone and everything. The result can be lack of motivation to act at all since nothing has value.

How do you explain the ennui of youngsters with all the “advantages”?

Advantages have been given them without anything being asked of them. Parents say, “What can we get you and what can we do for you?” rather than, “What can we expect of you for your own sake and for others with whom you share this planet?” The whole emphasis is on what can be given a child for his greater happiness. Psychiatry has become an evil part of the process since it focuses on the child’s problems and needs. Children not only need to be understood, they need to understand, to realize their obligations. At times parents are terrorized by their own children. They’re afraid to say, “Look, we must do this.” It’s no wonder these children have no self-respect. They’re never challenged.

What skills must young people learn for psychic survival?

Schools teach marvelous things but never manage to connect the abstractions to the concrete and often harsh realities of everyday life. This is in astonishing contrast to the working class where techniques for survival are crucial. Early on, poor children are taught that soon they will have to earn a living. Constantly, they’re being told about the hard realities of the real world, who owns what and how to get a job. Among middle-class children, markedly delayed adolescence is encouraged by educators and parents. Not until their twenties do some young people learn facts of life which working class or minority children know 10 or more years before.

How are small children so adaptable under adverse circumstances?

I’ve spent 20 years documenting that. Some adversity is social and economic. With the upper middle class, some is psychological. I am astonished at how children—despite the ignorance or psychological mischief of parents—can somehow achieve for themselves integrity and independence of thinking.

Has anger become a taboo?

I’m not sure it is a taboo. But what is taken from children in the name of psychological understanding is good, clean anger, spontaneity and responsiveness. Instead you get introspection, psychological name-calling and fake psychology—the group discussions where everyone is neutralizing feelings through a lot of talk and no passion. We need more moral passion in families so children can understand that to get angry is not always bad, but indeed necessary.

How do you feel about the competitiveness that prevails today, particularly as it relates to young people?

It’s a very serious problem in American life. Some kinds are natural; others are malignant. Our culture has overemphasized competitiveness in sports, academic life, the commercial world and professions. I would like to see it modified by comradeship and sharing, a response more loving and tender than the attitude, “I’ll beat you at all costs.”

What about the growing number of runaway teenagers?

When I started in child psychiatry, runaways usually were so-called “juvenile delinquents” from poor, seriously troubled families. Now runaways come from middle-and upper-class families apparently more intact economically and socially. A lot of these young people have been protected by their parents and teachers from all life’s tensions. When they experience these tensions, their impulse is to leave.

What about drinking and drugs?

They are a nightmare. Narcotizing the brain as a way of coming to terms with the world presents real problems. Drugs and alcohol at times are equivalent to running away from home.

You have written, “Somehow we all must learn to know one another.” How?

There’s nothing so depressing as being locked up in oneself. There’s nothing as liberating as finding a way to work with others on real problems that require energy and commitment. The other direction is one of apathetic self-regard—a malignant process and the prelude to depression. Which is the direction, God save us, some educators, psychiatrists and parents have too often pointed our children.