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March 21st, 2013 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 93 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a treatment method designed as both a preventative and post-morbid mode of intervention for various psychopathologies among children and adolescents. The method is termed “self surfing” and it is described as being most applicable with primarily para-biological disorders (those with no a clear or primary biochemical antecedent). A psychodrama format is suggested as a best possible milieu in which to implement preventative and treatment measures.

In discussing psychopathology among children and teens it is helpful to begin with early psychological development. Most mental practitioners in the field of psychology would interpret the word “development” in terms of specific stages; for example in ways espoused by Erickson, (Eagles, 1997) Piaget (1952) and Freud (1956). Here it is described more globally, as an early definition of self, emerging out of the myriad behavioral successes, failures, language attributions hoist upon the child by peers, family, and various authority figures in his or her life.

While the history of clinical psychological is replete with theories to explain the roots of psychopathology, it would seem three main theses have prevailed over time and that these are the seedbeds from which have sprung many of the current theoretical variations. One is behavior theory, which holds that wellness correlates with the learning and execution of useful, successful behavior patterns that produce enough positive feedback to preclude the frustration, helplessness, response uncertainty anxiety that typically lead to the onset of emotional disorders.

A second is the analytic model, which attributes psychopathology to myriad factors such as unmet needs in childhood, inadequate development of the ego and accompanying inability to moderate between id-driven urges and a sense of social probity. According to both the Behaviorist and Analytic (Freudian) models anxiety is the prime pathogen resulting from conflict rising stealthily from the unconscious.

The third model is one that will be used here. It has been termed the phenomenological model by Rogers (1951) and Kelly (1955), although in this opinion that term does not really capture its essence. More concretely it is a self image-directed model. It holds that beginning in early development all children are disposed to a dual processing of experience. One has to do with experience itself: for example inputs, behaviors, and consequences. The other has to do with what these experiences imply about the actor – the child himself. In other words the internalized aspects of experience.

The reason such a mechanism occurs automatically is because, all things being equal, it works. The self is a magnificently adaptive device; enabling us to play the odds effectively in the game of life; determine how much to risk, what barriers to overcome, what is the likelihood of net gain vs net loss in selecting certain behaviors and rendering decisions.

Rogers and others in the phenomenology camp felt pathology was the result of a mismatch between experience and the self, so that, for example if a child believed he is bright but failed a test, he would experience, anxiety, depression and other symptoms (1961). The symptoms could take many forms, for instance, compulsiveness (to resolve the confusion via undoing. and/or over-compensations to avoid self-discrepancies, including a guilt-assuaging antisocial persona that creates agreement between inappropriate behaviors and the self.

With respect to child development consider that all children are faced with the task of self-expansion beginning in early development. They start off as mother and father’s favorite. They are loved, clothed, nurtured and attended to at will. That sets the stage for a primary belief in the central importance of “me.” Later as the child proceeds toward greater independence in the aftermath of enhanced motor, language and intellectual development, he finds himself occasionally at odds with his parents and other authority figures. They set limits set. His prior sense of self-primacy is altered – it comprises a mismatch.

The child then goes off to school and finds that some kids are smarter, taller or more popular than he – still another mismatch. But the child is not just a socio-biological entity, his behavior is also governed by the laws of physics. He is a kind of system that adjusts to changes within. Faced with sudden disruption of normal parameters the gauge must be reset to re-establish stasis. So, in response to the psychic discomfort arising from the conflict the child. lowers his self-expectations, assumes a place lower on the totem pole so that his systemic self-parameters are restored – so far so good.

But then he wins a race in the playground, or maybe a spelling bee. It is exhilarating. His self-image is re-furbished. He shoots right back up the totem pole, until the next inevitable setback occurs. And during those early years and throughout life his self-image fluctuates around periods of success, failure, elation, distress, exultation, depression, confidence and anxiety. He seldom feels anchored and by the time he reaches adolescence (when identity becomes paramount) he finds himself on shaky ground. Group affiliations can help a bit but since he is now hanging out with kids as confused about their “self-locus” as he, not much occurs in the way of resolution.

It has been well-established, through various research studies that conflict and uncertainty are antecedent to anxiety and other psychopathologies (Masserman, 1942) (Keunyoung, Keun-Hyangik et al 2010). Uncertainty equates with the notion of a mismatch and those that exist between the self and external outcomes are the most critical. Indeed the ongoing conflict arising from a continual series of self-contradictions that typifies the lives of most human beings can be viewed as a common psycho-pathogen; an entity lurking in the background poised to foment frustration, anger, unrealistic compensations, grandiosity, hate and numerous other anti-social, excessively pro-self mechanisms.

In any case the pathogen is the mismatch. In that context the roots of a psychological disorder can be assumed to be several. First, the development of a self-image askew of the child’s real talents and range of assets, what Rogers called the “idealized self.” A second factor is the incongruent juxtaposition of experience upon self-image leading to gross, irresolvable disagreement between self and outcome. A third (coming under the rubric of a psychic deficiency) is a lack of self-image plasticity by which to accommodate a wide range of good and bad experiences so that the mismatches are precluded, minimized or can be broadly assimilated. The question is whether anything can be done about that and whether there is some way to inoculate children and teens and/or enhance the mental health of those at risk of incurring emotional disorders.

Since there is no field of preventative psychiatry the following analysis requires a grain of salt. However there are two resources to draw on in conceiving of such a process. One is Rogers, who felt the best way to deal with impending pathology is through self image expansion, i.e. the on-going creation of an evolving, ever-broadening self concept. Another was a bolder attempt at psycho-innoculation by Martin Seligman (1975) who suggested that children could be essentially psycho-immunized from subsequent pathology through a learned hopefulness method (1975). He has actually put some of this to practice in military training venues.

With that in mind it is possible to toy with the idea of a preventative approach to mental health by which to insulate the child against pathology. It is the idea of self-surfing and it could be taught, as a social skill in either a formal counseling or sub-therapeutic context. It would involve teaching children to play the roles of different people, to occupy various positions on the totem pole as it were; to speak, move, posture, think and emote in terms of a variety of self-states.

At first blush this might seem counterproductive, especially given the meritorious nature of our society, in which positive self-esteem is viewed as a prerequisite to success and achievement. The question could be asked as to whether such self-versatility might dilute the achievement motive that drives the singular pursuit of goals.

One possible answer to that question comes from the writings of Carl Jung, who in effect described the healthy personality as one with an understanding that progress is not a straight line, and that regression can either be viewed as a set-back or as a psychic hiatus that is prerequisite to subsequent achievement.

Self-surfing could probably be done in individual counseling (that is essentially what Rogerians do. However some students might respond better to a psycho-dramatic approach, whereby they are asked to play various roles that representing high and low points in the social hierarchy; for example winners and losers, heroes and “geeks,” as well as dominant and submissive types, then process all those role/experiences in the aftermath. Not only would the group format be seen as less threatening – especially if the child is merely acting out a role. It might also produce equanimity within the group precisely because all members would be on occasion strong, weak, dominant., submissive etc.

The question is, if done on a large scale, would this help prevent or ameliorate psychological disorders? Research could ultimately determine that, but given the vicissitudes life typically hands out to us all, it might have at least a common sense appeal. It also provides a prototype for what has heretofore been a rather ill-defined, elusive concept – normalcy. The numerous, and ever expanding diagnostic categories emerging from the DSM are well known to all of us. But there is no manual describing what normalcy really is. Perhaps in this context it can be partially defined – much as a physician defines good health in terms of lab test results or a 98.6 temperature, i.e as a form of self-resilience, typified by a fluid capacity to match self and external outcomes fluidly and across a wide variety of circumstances. In even simpler terms and as per the title of this article, it could be defined as an adequate self-surfing capacity with broad assimilative potentials that can inoculate the individual against what most clinical theorists consider the prime pathogen in emotional disturbance; conflict within the self.


Eagles, M. (1997) Contributions of Erik Erikson. Psychoanalytic Review 84 (3) 337-47

Freud, S (1956) On Sexuality, Penguin Books Ltd.

Jung,C.G. (1971) The Relation Between, the Ego and the Unconscious. In Joseph Campbell (ed) The Portable Jung. New York, Viking Press . p. 106

Kelly, G.A. (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York. Norton

Keunyoung, Y. Keun-Hyang. K. Shin Young, S & Kang-Soo, E. (2010) Intolerance of Uncertainty, Worry and Rumination in Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Vol. 24 (6) 623-628

Masserman, JH. (1942) Psycho-biological Dynamic in Behavior: An Experimental Study of Neurosis. Psychiatry (6) 341-347

Piaget, J (1952) the Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York International University Press

Rogers, C. (1951) Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory London, Constable Books

Rogers, C. (1961) On Becoming a Person; A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, London, Constable Books

Seligman, MEP (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death. San Francisco. WH Freeman

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