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"POWER RANGERS" THERAPY: HOW A CHILD PSYCHIATRIST HELPED KIDS IN THE 90s MORPH INTO THEIR BETTER SELVES

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

On August 28, 1993, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers premiered and made instant fans of children across the globe. Based on the Japanese television series Super Sentai, the Power Rangers featured a colorful team of high-kicking, karate-chopping teenagers endowed with special powers and the ability to summon massive robots or, "zords", to protect the world from evil. The show was a profound success and launched a mega-franchise of movies, toys, and television spin-offs that continue to capture the hearts of children to this day.


Given how super popular the original Power Rangers series was, it only seemed natural that someone would develop a therapy based on the gang of somersaulting, zord-beckoning heroes. And, in the mid-90s, Dr. Avi Rose, a clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, did just that. He saw great potential in the themes, characters, and morality plays depicted in the show and established a new therapy using Power Rangers story arcs as metaphors for positive change. An article describing the successful use of the therapy in treating a child with behavioral problems appeared in The International Journal of Play Therapy in 1995.

POWERFUL ROLE MODELS
Main cast of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993)

Dr. Rose believed that, although the program had its weaknesses, Power Rangers contained many positive elements that set it apart from other shows about superheroes battling evil. He suggested that unlike its predecessors, the show "presents a view of the self and society that is mostly positive and balanced... The protagonists are kind and caring, not only to each other but to their peers, parents, siblings and to the environment."

Dr. Rose also pointed out that, even though the Power Rangers saved the world in every episode, they remained humble and rarely bragged about their fantastic, monster-clobbering achievements. What's more, unlike other superheroes, the Power Rangers worked as a team. Their victories were the result of persistence, hard work, and above all, friendship. 

In addition to serving as powerful role models, the "teenagers with attitude" (as they were sometimes called) also conveyed important life lessons. "Sandwiched between the never-ending good versus evil battles," Dr. Rose noted, "are miniature morality plays with themes such as team-work, self-esteem, self-confidence and honesty." The show's edifying content, along with its popularity among younger viewers, made it clear to Dr. Rose that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers could be more than entertainment — it could be a mighty tool for therapy.

METAPHOR WITH AN ATTITUDE

According to Dr. Rose, child therapists should consider using Power Rangers themes and stories as metaphors. Given the show's immense following, children of the mid-to-late 90s were quite knowledgeable about the story arcs of the program and strongly identified with the characters. 

"[The Power Rangers'] strangely abnormal normality," Dr. Rose suggested, "is appealing to children who struggle to make sense of a world that is, to them, filled with difficult challenges and extra-ordinary situations on a constant basis."

Dr. Rose went on to say that the show's "tendency to present the [Power Rangers] as fallible and distinctly human is also appealing to children who see their own struggles as requiring super-human abilities and resources which may at times seem distant and unattainable... They are, in essence, the very metaphor of children in therapy."

The job of the therapist is to (1) help the child understand how a particular arc applies to their situation and (2) complete the metaphor — in other words, the therapist and child must work as a team to overcome whatever Godzilla-sized issue the child is facing. According to Dr. Rose, overcoming the problem requires the child to "morph" into a stronger, more powerful version of themselves.

THE GREEN RANGER'S REDEMPTION

Dr. Rose's therapy room had the full spectrum of Power Rangers action figures. However, despite having a wide selection, most children gravitated toward the same hero: the Green Ranger.

Unlike other Power Rangers, the Green Ranger entered the series as a villain, when the team's arch-nemesis, Rita Repulsa, cast a spell over him and made him an evil proxy for her cataclysmic endeavors. But, the Green Ranger didn't stay evil. On the contrary: with the help of the Power Rangers, the Green Ranger cut ties with Rita Repulsa and joined the titular team of heroes, becoming a force for good.

For children in therapy, the Green Ranger provides the most important metaphor. According to Dr. Rose, children — especially those with behavioral disorders — identify with the Green Ranger because like the manipulated hero, children "often feel pushed into destructive behavioral patterns by forces that do not seem to be within their control."

If the child is the Green Ranger, what does that make the therapist? Dr. Rose recommended that the therapist play the part of the fellow rangers, by reminding children in therapy of their central goodness and helping them battle the evil forces underlying their Rita-repulsive behavior. The technique, it would turn out, was quite effective. Dr. Rose provided the case of Justin as a proof of concept. 

IT'S MORPHIN' TIME: THE CASE OF JUSTIN

Justin was a seven-year-old with attitude. He started therapy with Dr. Rose after displaying "frequent and uncontrolled episodes of aggression both at home and school." Raised in a single-parent home without a positive male role model, Justin acquired false beliefs about masculine behavior from violent TV shows. One of them — you guessed it — featured a team of many colors.

Justin was, by all counts, a Power Rangers fanatic and often talked about the show in therapy. Even though Power Rangers may have been partially responsible for his aggressive outbursts (more on that later), Dr. Rose saw it as an opportunity for engaging the child in the therapeutic process. 

"After several sessions, Justin related to me his viewing of the Green Ranger story-line with great fascination," Dr. Rose wrote. "Here was a character presented as skillful, masculine and good who turned, against his will, into a force of evil and destruction. This plot resonated deep within Justin, who obviously felt similarly manipulated into antisocial behavior."

Dr. Rose and Justin talked about the Green Ranger's shift from villain to hero and used it as a model for therapy. They worked as a team and explored new avenues for "power, self-esteem and self-control." Dr. Rose also taught Justin how to manage his anger and channel his "aggressive impulses into sports and non-combative martial arts."

Over time, Justin's predilection to violence and aggression declined. He stopped "acting out" and maintained stronger, more positive relationships with family and friends. In other words, Justin morphed into his true, positive self. When therapy concluded, it was not without a parting gift. Dr. Rose gave Justin a Green Ranger action figure to "remind him of his journey and the battles that he had won through skill, ingenuity and with the help of those who cared for him."

CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVE: 

WAS IT TOO VIOLENT?

Dr. Rose showed that the Power Rangers can have a positive impact in the lives of children. However, in 1995 (when Dr. Rose published his article), most adults seemed to disagree. Parents, teachers, and politicians around the world were up in arms over the show's "excessive violence" and had grave concerns about how it affected children. 

In New Zealand, a woman filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), when her three-year-old grandson watched an episode and "immediately did a 180 degree jump in the air, landed next to his brother and gave him a kung fu kick to his chest." This led the BSA to ban the Power Rangers in New Zealand. Similar concerns led to bans in Canada and Norway.

But, did watching Power Rangers in the '90s really make kids more violent, or was the New Zealand boy a rare case? In a 1995 study, investigators at California State University Fullerton found that kids who had just watched an episode of Power Rangers later displayed more acts of violence and aggression than those who did not watch Power Rangers. This echoed the classic findings of the 1960s Bobo doll experiment, where kids who watched an adult beat up an inflatable clown doll were more likely to show aggression toward the doll as well.

While research has shown reliably that viewing violent behavior can make children more aggressive shortly after the viewing, we still don't know whether violent movies and television shows actually make children turn into violent adults. In fact, the kids who grew up watching Power Rangers in the mid-90s are part of a generation that commits far fewer violent crimes than previous generations. So, while it's possible the Power Rangers yielded a cohort of young adults who like to karate-chop their neighbors, evidence of this remains elusive.

What we do know is that the Power Rangers provided hours of enjoyment to millions of children around the world. It gave them something to bond over on the playground and was a form of escapism for children with less-than-super home lives. It was a network show, which meant that kids whose parents couldn't afford cable still had an opportunity to watch the program each week and talk about it at school with their wealthier peers. The show also provided a means to connect with troubled children. As Dr. Rose demonstrated, any child (despite their villainous past behavior) has what it takes to morph into a Power Ranger.

Read the original article here.

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