Under pressure

28 11 2011

One of my favorite parts of running girls group, aside from the sound of children’s laughter, seeing the participants grow and mature, the availability of snacks and impromptu dance parties, is watching the girls form friendships with one another.

It’s often assumed that the girls we work with are out running the streets. Their parents don’t care what they do, there’s no curfew, they drink and smoke with their grandmas.

Of course, this often isn’t the case. I wish some of the parents of girls I work with would lighten up. I understand their fears. Teen pregnancy is rampant where we live and work, and the neighborhood is dangerous. Shootings, gang violence, and drug deals are a part of everyday life. The idea of letting your child out of your sight is frightening, to say the least.

But at some point, you have to. Otherwise you end up dealing with what I see every day–these girls know that no matter what, they’re not going to be allowed to go out. So when they have the opportunity, they seize it. Stay out all night, do all the things they aren’t allowed. They don’t really have anything to lose.

So it’s nice to get them together with some other girls who are dealing with similar issues. No reason to be embarrassed about having an ACS case or a social worker, because everyone here does. Your mom doesn’t trust you? Mine doesn’t either! Your dad is constantly worrying about you getting pregnant? Ugh, I know. But they let the boys do whatever they want!

It’s easy for them to find common ground. We see the bonds start to form, the exchange of information, the mentions of seeing each other over the weekend or after school. It’s usually a little easier on the parents to let this happen. You want to hang out with someone you met in Miss SJ’s group? I guess it’s better than some trouble maker from the building.

It’s something I love to see. But it’s also something I’m very wary of.

Eating disorders can be very difficult to treat. They often don’t make sense to outsiders–just have a sandwich, what’s the issue? It sounds like it might be helpful for people suffering from eating disorders to have others to talk to, who know what they’re going through, who let them know they’re not alone. Group work, anyone?

But groups are actually rather dangerous for the treatment of eating disorders. I know some particularly skilled workers are able to make it work, but the fact is that whatever support participants get in those groups is generally counteracted by what they learn from other group members. New tricks, ways to hide what they’re doing, and the like.

That negative influence and sharing secrets is also a concern in our group. When we were first planning our group, we talked about the common problems we saw amongst the girls we worked with. One that came up frequently was shoplifting. Hey, stuff is awesome, but it’s also expensive!

I was nervous about focusing on shoplifting for precisely this reason. I didn’t want to girls to learn from each other in this way. I was afraid that those already into it would get better at it, and those who hadn’t considered it might give it a try.

Shoplifting came up anyway. And my oh my, we all learned a few things. Someone threw out the names of a couple of stores that have rather lax security, and another went on in great detail about how to hide things in one’s bra. One girl had to be cut off before she was able to complete her speech on the importance of developed thigh muscles in smuggling stolen goods out of electronic stores. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to remind them that this was girls’ group, not thievery class, and get us back on track.

In a previous group, a young girl, Callie, who had just lost her virginity became close with another girl, Anna, who had a long history of sexually acting out. Callie asked Anna about performing oral sex on her boyfriend. Callie had tried this, and simply could not see the appeal. Anna told her that “it’s just something you do, even though you don’t really want to.” As glad as we were that Callie and Anna could relate to one another and talk, but this wasn’t advice we were going to endorse. It was fortunate that Callie confided this to her worker, who was able to discuss this with her, and bring it up to the group in a general way that didn’t violate confidentiality. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

Rebecca and Madison, two girls on my caseload who are also both in my group, recently became friends. Rebecca is the classic “problem child,” while Madison was disappointed to hear that she couldn’t go to school on Thanksgiving day. (Seriously, she needs to lighten up.) They seemed like an odd pair, but I was tentatively hopeful that Madison would positively influence Rebecca.

Of course, Madison came to me saying that Rebecca was pressuring her to go to parties with twenty year old guys (excellent place for thirteen year old girls) and was threatening to defriend her on Facebook. (I’m fairly certain that this is the equivalent of erasing a teenager from life, much like the McFly children disappearing from photographs in Back to the Future.)

When the kids come to us with these issues, or we see them in group, we can address them. But how? Peer pressure is not going anywhere.

Our best friend seems to be positive peer pressure.

I always get annoyed when people clap for a pilot landing a plane. It was literally the least he could do. What’s the alternative? Yay, thanks for not killing us all! It’s the pilot’s job. I don’t get a round of applause when I successfully lead a family in a scaling exercise.

But it’d be nice.

So we clap in group. We clap for a girl saying no to sex she didn’t want, we clap for a girl telling her mom how she really feels, we clap for walking away from shoplifting. Girls take turns telling each other the improvements they’ve noticed.

Praise is powerful. Your peers and group leaders giving you a standing ovation? It can help.

Groupwork is amazing. It’s incredibly important for these girls, and they’re able to learn a great deal. There are drawbacks, of course, as there are drawbacks to everything in work and life. But looking out for those negative influences, and jumping all over the positives, can make it worthwhile.

They might even clap for you.

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5 responses

28 11 2011
Thorn

SJ, claps to you for this post! It’s given me a lot to think about.

28 11 2011
Lyndsey

I love the idea of clapping at positives! Yes, there will always be peer pressure but identifying that it can be both negative and positive and focusing on steering towards the positive is so insightful! Clasps for you SJ! 🙂

28 11 2011
Sarah

Clap clap! I agree that groups can rock, but as someone who’s run *many* ED groups, I also hear you on the bit where they can be a negative peer influence. Hopefully, the therapeutic goals of the group win out over conspiring to trick the group leaders/ therapists. I think it can also be helpful to discuss with the group anything that might hold them back or cause them to be dishonest. Generally, talking about the negative influences can break the ice a bit and again, *hopefully*, let them know that focusing on the positives will help them in the long run.

28 11 2011
Operation Social Welfare

Positive peer pressure-> well said! Praise, encouragement, and kindness can go a long way in group work. Thanks for sharing your awesome experience!

http://socialworkconfessions.com/

29 11 2011
wiggy

Reading your blog today was quite powerful and made me feel tearful, so much can be achieved through our non verbal communication, yeah to clapping when words could never convey the same message.

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