Maybe it's a reflection of their eye-popping surroundings, but it seems Icelanders are always coming up with sweeping gestures that capture the world's imagination.

Whether it's the staggering scale of the country's effort to restore lush forests that were hacked down by Vikings. Or the homespun charm of Iceland's Christmas book tradition — eschewing crass commercialism in favor of a refreshingly uncommercial book exchange.

But back in 1992, the country's future didn't seem so rosy-cheeked and fresh.

In fact, the island nation was rotting from within. A countrywide survey of Icelandic teens aged 14 to 16, painted a portrait of youth under siege from social ills. Nearly half of the teens surveyed said they had gotten drunk in the last month, and one in four of these teens were regular smokers.

Enter the Milkman

Teens in Iceland hang around a monument The country hired prominent American psychologist Harvey Milkman to help solve its youth crisis. (Photo: Anne Richard/Shutterstock)

So how do you turn around a social issue that infects the very heart of the country? It's not quite as simple as planting trees. But in a way, Iceland's solution was to grow another kind of forest — one in the hearts of its youth.

For help, the country turned to, of all places, America — hiring Harvey Milkman, a psychologist and expert on substance abuse.

And Milkman, working with the Icelandic government, got families and teachers and even businesses on the same page.

Parents were urged to not only make time for their children, but to actively participate in their lives. Schools made time and space too, opening fresh, after-class programs that spanned everything from music clubs to painting to ice skating and football. And the government poured funds into those programs.

The big, bold idea? Give teens something to do.

Along the way, Iceland pushed the legal age to buy alcohol to 20 and banned children between 13 and 16 from being outside late at night. Ads for alcohol were sharply prohibited.

Nearly 20 years later, Iceland is a model for clean-living teens — kids who choose to make music and art rather than make war on themselves. According to The Atlantic, the country tops Europe when it comes to healthy, clean teens.

"This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen," Milkman told the magazine. "I'm just so impressed by how well it is working."

So, while sweeping scenes of the country's natural landmarks capture the imagination — and valiant conservation efforts are an inspiration to the world — the best thing to come out of Iceland may have been the ideas of an imported American.

How an American helped Iceland turn its youth crisis around
The 'Icelandic Model' may be the country's best export.