KAI saves a teenager’s life

Stories from Dr Kirton, retold by Nicola Kirton

I would like to recall for you a story my father told me when I was much younger.

In the University where he worked there was a woman with a teenage daughter. The mother, Sally, was always immaculately, but conservatively dressed, and had a reputation for efficiency and being methodical, considerate and thoughtful. Her husband, James, worked in process engineering, and was wonderful with ensuring that things ran smoothly and when he made changes, they were small and always beneficial. My father, Dr M J Kirton, knew her well and had met her husband on several occasions.

One day, the mother, Sally, sought out my father. She knew he was a psychologist, so could he help her with her troublesome teenage, Petra?

What’s the problem? Petra had recently ended up in hospital having taken an overdose. She was 16 years old.

She has always been a handful, very wilful and wanting to do everything ‘her way’. She was always arguing with them – especially about her very untidy room, her outrageous clothing choices and her unpunctual behaviour. Sally and James didn’t know what they had done wrong to have produced such a live-wire, revolutionary teen.



Sally heard other people had problems with their teenagers – but not on the scale that they seemed to be having. They had been such good parents! They:

  • Had run a tight ship, with regimented bedtime (which Petra had always ignored) – as recommended in all the books…
  • There was no TV until after homework (TV which might corrupt or distract was banned).
  • Everything in the house had ‘its place’ – except in Petra’s room (on most days this looked as though burglars had ransacked it).
  • Even when in school uniform, she looked irreverently and unconventionally dressed.
  • She had multiple piercings – even though she was told not to, started wearing make-up & drinking alcohol before other girls.

Sally and James knew teenagers needed structure and when she started going off the rails, they increased the structure to give her ‘more security’. However, things had gone from bad to worse.

So what had gone wrong?

There was some discussion. Petra said:

  • She loved her parents and she didn’t want to upset them – she didn’t do it on purpose!
  • She had tried but she found it very difficult to conform, be tidy, be on time, follow the house rules.
  • She understood that her mom & dad found her behaviour difficult, but although she could be ‘good’ for a short while, in no time at all, she had slipped back into her ‘old, bad ways’.
  • Being always wrong & fighting with her parents made her very sad, and she had been self-harming, which had led to a suicide attempt.

My father gave this some careful thought. Are any other members of your family as ‘eccentric’ and outspoken as Petra?

Well, yes, Sally’s sister (Petra’s Aunt) had always been a right handful too. She had been the bane of her parents’ life… but she had gone on to be an avant garde artist of some repute and even become quite ‘respectable’.

My father thought some more, and suggested:
Send your daughter to live with her aunt for a while!

This was a revolutionary thought. My father went on to explain. Petra is a high innovator. Both of her parents were high adaptors – pretty well 70 points between them. They were coming from very different places. Petra – experimental, boundary pushing, risk-taking, doesn’t think only outside the box… she just can’t see the box. Sally & James – rule conforming, methodical, careful, thoughtful, organised. It was oil and water … and it was leading to disaster.

There is a happy ending to this tale!
Sally & James reluctantly agreed to give this a go. Petra loved living with her aunt – who took enough care of her to make sure she didn’t come to any harm, but gave her the freedom she needed. Her aunt didn’t mind mess (‘organised chaos’), untimeliness or unstructured life… in fact she thrived on it. Her aunt took her to art galleries, to the pub and to interesting plays.

Adaption-Innovation – the key

Once adaption-innovation had been explained to everyone involved, it led to a lot more understanding. It has led to respect for others’ needs and preferences – from young to old.

Petra now visits her parents for longer periods of time and can manage to keep her stuff tidy whilst she is there (known as ‘coping behaviour’ – behaving in a way that isn’t her preference, but knows it will keep the peace).

And Petra’s parents don’t make a fuss when she’s late – which she always is!

Insight, respect, kindness and love has kept this family together … and Petra alive.

(The names and situations in this tale have been altered to protect the innocent)


We have no proof that KAI (problem solving style) was so significant to this family’s problems. However, my father, an experienced psychologist and used to dealing with young people, remained convinced that it was their ‘cognitive gap’ (preference gap) which had pushed the situation from ‘usual teenage problems’ into such a downward spiral. What is not under debate is that the solution helped ‘right the ship’.

What is of particular importance is that Petra didn’t want to upset her parents, and she was trying to conform to their requirements – she just couldn’t sustain behaving in that way over a protracted period of time. This, for my father, is what clinched the argument. She couldn’t manage the coping behaviour, even though she wanted to.

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