I highly recommend a re-reading of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” for anyone struggling to help an adolescent loved one. 

With its themes of identity confusion and alienation, it can help youth workers and parents to more fully understand the young person’s internal experience. 

“Catcher” has been notoriously misunderstood, misinterpreted and maligned for generations now. Though it has many useful and accurate interpretations, including existential and Buddhist ones, I believe it presents an important, first person account of the very nature of adolescent depression.

Holden Caulfield, the seventeen-year-old narrator and protagonist of the novel, is often seen solely as the picture of teenage rebellion, or worse, as merely a spoiled rotten, prep-school member of the Manhattan “martini set” in late 1949, on a bender of meaningless bad days. This less then empathic view misses the fact that Holden’s younger brother has just died. And rather than being supported in working through his grief about the loss of his brother, he has been unceremoniously sent off to prep school by his parents. Many readers are put off by Holden’s constant state of irritability and his view that everyone, especially adults, are “phonies.” He tries and fails to connect with most everyone in his life. Adult characters try and fail to help him. The character is literally hard to be around! Does this sound like anyone you know? 

Holden, like many adolescents, is struggling with the loss of childhood innocence, made more complicated by the death of his brother. He is like a prickly pear. Obviously in pain, his struggles lead you to sweetly care about him, and yet he spurns all attempts at help or understanding. Youth workers will immediately identify him as an adolescent in emotional crisis. Depressed adolescents are hard to be around. Many psychotherapists and social workers will not even deal with this age group, while many parents become sad, confused and angry, wondering where the hell the son or daughter they loved went!

“The Catcher in the Rye” can help those interested in helping young people understand the emotionally difficult internal experience that drives them. If you are struggling to help a young person and are finding it hard to get through to them, finding a therapist specifically trained to work with adolescents may be very useful to you. And it can help that young person successfully negotiate their path from childhood to adulthood. I have worked extensively with adolescents in individual, group and family therapy as well as through foster care, youth centers and juvenile justice organizations.