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When the Circus Came to Town

Bieber’s Miami Beach meltdown: Just in time or too little, too late?

It might be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Justin Bieber’s Canadian conundrum and drug and alcohol-induced drag race on the streets of Miami Beach, Fla., paint a picture far more alarming than a celebrity bad boy run amuck.

That would be too easy.

While the precise causes of Justin’s difficulties are easy to speculate about (too much money, too much freedom, too much unconditional admiration come to mind), there’s clearly more here than meets the eye. Coast to coast, north to south, this young man appears to be unraveling. One day he is accused of hurling eggs at his neighbor’s home in the upscale Calabasas, Calif., enclave known as The Oaks and another of placing his life, and likely the lives of others, at risk for the sake of an impaired thrill ride in a yellow Lamborghini, while his daddy apparently looked on. Reports followed that he may have assaulted a limo driver in Toronto a month ago.

Is all of this just in time or too little, too late?

Reminiscent of the recent drunk and drugged driving case of 16-year-old Texan Ethan Couch—who actually did kill people—19-year-old Justin Bieber is a young man of pretense and privilege, even if his was earned. What he isn’t, apparently, is one with much joy or self-efficacy.

The anti-anxiety medication Justin admitted to using, which his mommy allegedly gave him, is telling. So, too, is the daylong binge of marijuana mixed with beer.

Yet, it was his “smug shot heard round the world” and reported sobbing behind bars that tipped the scale from your run-of-the-mill celebrity shenanigans to a disturbing determination that this talented pop star needs some help.

And I’m not talking about rehab.

In the space between his Internet introduction at age 12 and his arrest on Jan. 23, it’s quite possible that the wheels came off his developmental racecar. Young people entering puberty are beginning what Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget referred to as the formal operational thought stage of cognitive development. In other words, for the first time one is able to think about thinking … and other abstract notions such as identity and character development. These are no easy tasks and many, if not most, teens experience turbulence during this part of the ride.

Does that mean they are destined to fail? Not at all.

With the help of peers, parents and other caring adults, most young people arrive safely on the doorstep of adulthood largely prepared to be successful, contributing members of communities and societies. All despite the fact that evolving adolescent brains appear to predispose them to risk.

But what if there are no real peers? No authoritative parents? No other adults allowed to connect? What if the bubble around Bieber shields him from true adoration based not on fame and wealth but on his real self? And what if that real self, in turn, is impossible to find amid the circus that seems to surround him?

In order to fully achieve important developmental tasks—perhaps especially identity formation—young people need time, space, correction and accountability. Anything less can result in what psychologists Erik Ericson termed an identity crisis and James Marcia called identity diffusion (avoidance), moratorium (stalled) or foreclosure (premature).

Of course, in Justin’s case, this is pure conjecture. But his predicament speaks loudly about the woes of potentially poor parenting, succinctly captured in the work of Dr. Tim Elmore, founder and president of Growing Leaders, a mentoring organization designed to develop the adults of tomorrow. He warns that, too often, we:

• Don’t let our children experience risk;

• Rescue too quickly;

• Rave too easily;

• Let guilt get in the way of leading well;

• Don’t share our past mistakes;

• Mistake intelligence, giftedness and influence for maturity;

• Don’t practice what we preach.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Research into four distinct parenting styles (indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved) from psychologist Diana Baumrind offers a ready roadmap to balanced parenting.

With any luck, it’s not too late for Justin Bieber.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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