How do we explain celebrity meltdowns (i.e. Charlie Sheen) to our kids?

Posted in DefaultTag by milestogodrugeducation on April 21st, 2011

Hi and welcome to the podcast where we simplify a complex subject

My classes (4th – 6th graders ) have now been spending an average of 7 minutes of my precious 90 minutes of class time asking questions about Charlie Sheen. Which drug is he on? What has happened to him? Why does he look so bad? He is my neighbor and the helicopters have been driving my parents crazy - will he get arrested for using drugs?


We at Miles To Go (Jonathan and Kelly) have to this point chosen to stay silent about Charlie’s behavior because we do not think that bad celebrity behavior in the name of media attention should be rewarded. We have spoken many times about rewards and consequences in our parent meetings and in our book. Reinforcing bad behavior with a job, press, money, fan letters, sold out shows, and, worst of all, non-stop news coverage only encourages that person/child to repeat that behavior. In his current “show” touring the country, the news clips have shown Charlie becoming a parody of himself, repeating lines like “I’m on a drug, it’s called Charlie Sheen.”


If we stand in his shoes, there are no signals telling him NOT to repeat his behavior. He is getting support from everyone who wants to see someone implode publicly for the chance to laugh at them. He is getting support from all the drug users who want to support their party life style as “cool.” He is getting support from everyone who wants to ogle at his free-wheeling sex life as he calls Hugh Hefner “an amateur.”


Let’s now stand in his parents’ shoes for a moment. I can speculate that they are heartbroken. No parent, no matter how old the child is, can easily stand by and watch their child be in an unhealthy mental state and physical danger from their behavior. As with every drug user, there are others who must share the pain caused by that use. These people are shut out of the user’s life and are forced to stand by and watch a public destruction. I’m sure this is not what Charlie’s parents thought would happen when they first held their baby in the hospital 45 years ago. Reports say that his family has tried repeatedly to help him in every way possible, but he is an adult with limitless money who is not ready for help. A person doesn’t reach out for help with drugs or mental issues until they have the ability to recognize that they are in trouble or danger. He may not be receptive to help until he is caught doing something illegal and is arrested; and if history is any indication, not even then! If Charlie is arrested or institutionalized, he may be able to detox, or at the very least get a mental health evaluation. Drugs or mental illness appear to have robbed him of the ability to be introspective.


Now let’s stand in our kids’ shoes. Public spectacles like this can be confusing to kids. Some of them are scared for Charlie and his children. Some are wondering why people are laughing and why nobody seems to be helping him. The exact same thing happened when Brittany Spears was the media target of bad behavior, when Anna Nicole Smith had her own reality show. Every time Lindsay Lohan goes to court, my child is heartbroken. The kids in my class will all blurt out their analyses about him all at the same time, and we now we have 20 kids spreading misperceptions to each other like the old telephone game. I stop this immediately, because I have a strict rule in drug education classes: when someone asks a question in my class, the kids are not allowed to teach each other by blurting out everything they know about the subject/person. They learn from me, not from each other. The unfortunate part about this is that it seems there will be another Charlie, Lindsay and Anna Nicole coming in the future.


Standing in our own shoes doesn’t make the road much easier to navigate. For adults, parents and teachers this is a tough subject. Most of us are not mental health professionals, and those of us who are must remember not to assess a person from an edited television interview. What seems obvious to most adults is not obvious to kids, teens and young adults, so, as tedious as this next section sounds, every little detail needs to be explained. If you use business 101 and psychology 101, you’ll be surprised how children as young as 4th grade can understand this concept.


This is how I’ve been explaining it in my classroom: drugs are a business! Everyone is in it for the money, and everyone gets a piece of the pie. This is a subject that is integrated into my Myths Around the World class for 4th -6th graders. Charlie has multiple addictions: the first is drugs and alcohol, the second is fame. The liquor store makes money from his alcohol purchases. The drug dealer makes money from his cocaine purchases. The blogger makes money from the ads that people click on or the pop up advertising at their web or blog site. The cigarette company is thrilled every time he is seen smoking their product because it is free advertising for them on TV, where it is illegal for them to advertise. The news makes money by promoting Charlie Sheen latest antics, and then they sell advertising based on how many people watch their program.


Charlie then starts selling t-shirts, or is paid for an interview, sells tickets to a live show. He needs to keep generating money to pay for the drugs that his brain and body are craving. He needs to have fans on his side to encourage the television stations to give him a TV show or internet web show. He also needs to keep acting outrageously so that he earns enough money to pay the people around him to stay with him. For example, besides his obligations to pay for his house, food and children, he needs to pay for his manager, his t-shirt business partners who make, package and ship the t-shirts, a publicist to arrange for the press to cover his antics, accountants to manage his money, and lawyers to make the deals and sign the legal contracts for him to appear on the shows.


You also have to explain to your children what a “Yes Man” is and how it works.  People with power/money tend to keep “yes” people around them. They are the people who always say yes to the person with power so that they can keep being paid in cash, paychecks, advertising or drugs. If Charlie’s girlfriend keeps telling him “Yes, Charlie, you are funny, popular and cool,” then the girlfriend keeps getting clothes, drugs, a place to live and a party lifestyle with the cameras/press taking her picture. (Imagine what her parents think!) Does this mean that people with power and money are always right or should always be told yes? Of course not! Fair and clear thinking individuals will surround themselves with people who will tell them the truth. If someone tells Charlie the truth, will that person be fired? Probably, because Charlie is not a clear thinking person right now due to the drugs or mental illness clouding his judgment.  At present, “yes” is what Charlie wants. He appears to have reached the point where madness is normal and what the rest of us see as normal is, to him, the epitome of madness.


Many parents’ default position is to answer their kids’ questions with the statement, “He’s crazy.” Unfortunately, this is not an answer; it’s a delaying tactic to avoid the real answer, because a considered answer is so difficult to explain. It is never appropriate to label a person as “crazy,” no matter how easy it is and how quickly it slips out of our mouths. There has been much speculation about Charlie being bi-polar. This, of course, is very difficult to assess from our living rooms, but Charlie’s behavior does appear to be manic, and unfortunately, it may be followed by a deep and threatening depression that many have speculated could lead to overdose or suicide. This is not a topic suitable for young children. Stay where you are comfortable with the discussion and don’t get into heavier psychology than you are adequately ready to explain.   


Here’s what I say to my students: “He is a man in trouble, with something going on inside his head that is very complicated and difficult to understand.”


First, it is the way the drugs are making him react and behave. Second, he is doing what we call imploding. Let’s go to Merriam Webster for this definition of Implode: 1.a : to burst inward b : to undergo violent compression 2.: to collapse inward as if from external pressure; also : to become greatly reduced as if from collapsing 3.: to break down or fall apart from within : self-destruct.  Now kids hear this and picture in their heads that a brain is collapsing inside his skull (remember kids are literal thinkers). So, explain that inside his head the drugs can change the very sensitive chemistry and inner workings of the brain and his thoughts.


The pressure to make money and watch his career fall apart is causing him stress.  I’m going to use Merriam Webster’s C and D definitions and I’ve listed the examples of stress below. Incorporate your own examples of stress to include something that may be stressful for your child that they can internalize the definition. From MW- Stress: c: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation d: a state resulting from a stress; especially: one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium <job-related stress>

Examples of usages of the term STRESS from Merriam Webster’s free online dictionary:

1.      She uses meditation as a way of reducing stress.

2.      Hormones are released into the body in response to emotional stress.

3.      She is dealing with the stresses of working full-time and going to school.

4.      He talked about the stresses and strains of owning a business.

5.      Carrying a heavy backpack around all day puts a lot of stress on your shoulders and back.

6.      To reduce the amount of stress on your back, bend your knees when you lift something heavy.

7.      The ship's mast snapped under the stress of high winds.

8.      measuring the effects of stresses on the material


Ultimately, I think we want our children to strive for empathy and understanding. We can feel disgust and anger when important news stories are pushed aside and replaced with sensationalized headlines about another celebrity falling apart, but I still feel it’s important to talk to my students about understanding that something very serious is happening to another human being. We need to understand that Charlie is in trouble, but he doesn’t understand what is happening to his brain and body. For now, he has destroyed his legitimate career and business relationships, but most importantly, he has hurt himself and his family relationships. That doesn’t mean that his parents don’t love him, but that they are emotionally hurt, sad, disappointed and scared for their child. Charlie is an adult, but he is still someone’s child, and no parent wants to watch anything bad happen to his or her child. In the end, that is why we are talking about this today.


Post Script: there are ads on our blog page and website as well, but to date I think we’ve made about 90 cents in a year and we pay $60 per month for web and email service! We’re not the example of bloggers who make money, but I do see there is a contradiction.


Post Script 2: A big mommy-hug to Gayle King for vowing not to talk about Charlie Sheen or promote and sensationalize his behavior.


Post Script 3: Hopefully, there will come a day when the pendulum swings the other way and we will spend less time with the lurid details of the next celebrity self-destruction and more time strengthening the relationships with family and friends that really matter. (Pardon me if you don’t see me holding my breath.)

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