Acceptance of Group Resistance in a School Based Anger Management Group with Urban Adolescents

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Ellen Decker

"OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN"

Some call them "other people's children" (Delpit, 1995, p. 137). They are a unique clinical population not only because they are adolescents, but because many of them come from high-risk environments where extreme emotional reactivity is the norm. Gangs are prevalent in their urban neighborhoods. Some have seen family members shot in the street. When they come to school, some of them are ready and eager to learn, and appear to have made sense of the trauma that is part of their daily existence. Others, however, come laden with firmly set defenses and seem more ready to fight than to learn.

GOALS OF THE GROUP AND GROUP COMPOSITION

The goals of the group are to prevent and reduce the frequency and intensity of angry outbursts and to assist group members in finding alternatives to inappropriate expressions of anger. Critical competencies and skills necessary for a successful mastery of the transition from adolescence to adulthood are incorporated into a supportive and therapeutic environment. A positive peer culture is stressed. Although the group is designed for schools, it can easily be adapted to community settings.

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Described as an "anger management" group, and part of a larger school counseling program, the group is comprised of female students who have been referred to the school counselor because of frequent angry outbursts toward staff and peers. Some of the students are self-referred and others are referred by teachers or staff. A few are referred by their parents. Parent/guardian permission is required for group participation.

The school population is comprised primarily of African-American students. Group members are between the ages of twelve and fourteen. The group is gender specific and tailored to the unique issues adolescent girls face. The students themselves have requested that the group be for "girls only" and very clearly stated that they would feel self-conscious if the group included boys. Mixed-gender groups appear to make it difficult for girls to explore intimate and sensitive issues.

GROUP DESIGN

The group meets once a week for one hour. The setting is the school counselor's office in an environment that is welcoming and relaxed. The group model integrates psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, relaxation training, journaling, and the processing of feelings related to normative life transitions. Group can be scheduled during the school day at a specific time or can be conducted after school. Group planning plays a large role in group success and before starting the group, the leader must do a thorough job of group selection. Brigman & Goodman (2001) provide a very helpful pregroup interview outline that can be used when making determinations of group composition.

THE INTERVENTION

Modeling a Nondefensive and Empathic Acceptance of Group Resistance

This section describes a group intervention intended to help members of a school-based anger management group gain skills in understanding and regulating their feelings. The goal of the intervention is

Modeling a Nondefensive and Empathic Acceptance of Group Resistance 239

to foster the development of empathy among group members and diffuse the anxiety resistance by modeling empathy. The leader's skill at modeling a nondefensive and empathic response to resistance in the group forms the crux of this intervention. By demonstrating empathy "in vivo" within the group, members may begin to experience the group as a safe and supportive enough environment where the corrective emotional experience can occur. Internalization of the corrective emotional experience by group members can begin to chip away at the nonproductive defenses young people from high-risk backgrounds carry around with them. Although clearly not a technique that lends itself easily to a "how to" format, when using the modeling of empathy as a group intervention it is helpful to keep the following in mind:

1. Resistance is always going to be a part of any group, including adolescent groups. It serves a function of regulating group tension and defending against anxiety. It is the task and duty of the group leader to understand this concept and develop a way of being in the group that reframes the resistance.

2. Therapist self-awareness is the first step in modeling empathy in groups. It is imperative that the group leader take some time to explore his or her underlying, culturally learned assumptions, as well as identifying the cultural backgrounds of group members.

3. Developing skills in "reading" a group member's emotional message is an important part of enacting the intervention. Keep in mind that behind the adolescent's resistance in group is a feeling that is too difficult to confront. Use clinical skills to accurately interpret the emotional trigger and respond empathically. Ask questions based on empathic understanding.

4. The group leader should make a conscious effort to weave empathy into the group experience by encouraging and nurturing group members. By modeling a reflective listening style that minors an expressed emotion, the leader provides group members with an "in vivo" example of how to acknowledge and support what others have said.

5. When responding to group members' expression of feelings, utilize a structured listening approach such as the one developed by Le-vine (2005).

This technique can also be taught to group members as a means of effectively responding when members self-disclose. Levin suggests asking the following questions:

• What happened? (identify the event)

• How is the person feeling? (an understanding of the other person's feelings leads to empathy)

• What will I do? (decide on a specific action to respond to the event)

The group leader can teach this structured listening approach and demonstrate how it can be used effectively in group. Group members are more likely to respond to one another with empathy after being encouraged by the group leader to ask these three questions.

6. Be conscious of physical space in the group. Empathy can be modeled in group by physically orienting oneself toward the group member who is speaking.

7. Be consistent in providing a structured, limit-setting yet supportive stance when acting out in group occurs. Adolescents can say and do things that may be hurtful to each other and/or to the group leader. Validate feelings without condoning behavior that is harmful to themselves or others. Working with adolescents takes tremendous personal energy and patience. Take the time to reflect with trusted colleagues or a supervisor when countertransference reactions appear to be impeding group growth.

8. Reinforce empathic responses given by group members to one another. For example, when a member makes a self-disclosure that displays a parallel experience ("me-too" disclosures) (Fuhriman & Burlingame, p. 501), or in another way verbally confirms an understanding of another group member's experience, the leader can reinforce the response with an encouraging verbal comment and/or a supportive look or nod.

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