Children of celebrities like Ted Koppel have unique needs

Recent tragedies like the death of Ted Koppel's son show a parent’s visibility can distort a child’s fragile sense of what is possible.

When I read recently of the death of the son of my former ABC News colleague Ted Koppel, I felt an all-too-familiar knot in my gut. Many of us who have often been in front of the camera – in TV news or Hollywood – and who have children recognize the feeling.

Yet we rarely speak of the terrible burden our children often carry because they have highly visible, sometimes celebrity, parents.

How does a university freshman, trying to find his way in the world, respond when classmates say, “Hey, I saw your dad on the Peter Jennings show from Moscow last night,” often week after week? There is no built-in reality check that reminds our children it took us 25 years to become an ABC News Moscow bureau chief or an evening news anchor.

All that most of our children see is the affluence that comes with the job. Too often the parent’s visibility distorts a young person’s fragile sense of what is possible for them.

Children of famed parents can come to believe that the bar for them is impossibly high and assume they will never be able to accomplish on their own what their superstar parents achieved. Worse, a parent’s visibility can threaten to extinguish a child’s own dreams.

Too often, children of celebrities come to believe that the rules the rest of us have to obey do not apply to them. But their lives can be much harder, and they need to be taught as much.

I remember discussing this one evening over dinner sometime in the late 1980s with another former ABC News colleague, Barbara Walters, at the National Hotel in Moscow. At the time, I was lamenting that my elder son seemed to lack any great, burning ambition or particular goals.

Her lecture to me was pointed and poignant. She said my judgments of my son as a university sophomore were unfair and way off the mark. She then reminded me of my son’s other fine qualities, including his good grades at Harvard.

“You know I have an adopted daughter,” she told me. Painfully she shared that her daughter ran with New York street gangs, indulged in heavy-duty drug use, and made all-around poor decisions. Ms. Walters confided that her family and friends urged her to ditch the adopted kid. But to her undying credit, she never would or did. She stuck by the child when many parents might have turned and walked away.

Then, as I recall, Walters related the following sad and touching story. She had taken her daughter to serious counseling sessions. After some time, the prominent psychiatrist called her in and said he believed he was getting close to an answer. He said the child complained about being cruelly hectored and teased mercilessly by other children at school. The therapist said that when he asked Walters’s daughter, “What’s the worst thing they say to you?” the child replied in tears, “That I am Barbara Walters’s daughter.”

Walters’s daughter came through her struggles and eventually started a program to help troubled teens. But the catalog of children who cannot handle their parents’ visibility is long, and it is epitomized in the newspaper clippings. It’s almost always the celebrity parent who gets his or her picture in the newspaper.

Rarely is the celebrity’s troubled kid considered until after the fact.

Marie Osmond’s adopted son Michael Bryan thrice attempted suicide and sadly succeeded on the fourth try. That the newspaper photograph of a teary Ms. Osmond was splashed across the front page of the tabloids is a biting commentary on our obsession with celebrities and our failure to recognize how distorting and sometimes fatal this becomes for their children.

Rarely do children understand that what they see on the screen is all done with smoke and mirrors and teleprompters – and is often devoid of reality.

There are few better witnesses to the stresses on children of parents in the spotlight than Hollywood star Michael Douglas. His father, Kirk Douglas, is a movie giant. Recently, Michael’s son Cameron was convicted of a major drug charge. The presiding judge told him, “I think this case and this senten­cing may be his last chance.”

During the trial, Michael said, “I have some idea of the pressure of finding one’s identity with a famous father.” What he left unsaid was that earlier he lost a half brother to drugs and alcohol abuse. It’s a pattern that continually repeats itself.

Children of celebrities should be taught early that the fact that their parents are famous ultimately makes their lives more complicated, not easier. And regardless of whether that parent is on the evening news or in movies, it’s still only a job.

Obviously there are celebrity parents whose children never make it in the news and the parents are clearly doing a good job raising them. But there are enough incidents in the press to suggest many haven’t recognized their children’s unique needs.

Finally, celebrities might try reading the Icarus fable to their children at bedtime: It has a modern moral. When famous parents or their offspring fly too close to the bright lights and heat of celebritydom, they can find themselves tumbling helplessly and, sometimes fatally, back to earth.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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