Giving a consequence to someone who experiences herself as bad is a difficult task, because the consequence only provides further data supporting a negative self-assessment. Adolescents are particularly skillful at creating evidence to support their underlying beliefs about themselves. Adolescents in residential treatment facilities have provided ample evidence that their coping strategies are less than adequate to be able to function in less restrictive home environments; therefore, their self-concepts often mirror their inadequacies. My work with adolescents in a residential treatment facility was often focused on finding a way to consequence adolescents’s negative behaviors, without further damaging their self-concepts. The program I worked for had a dramatic and extreme way of going about this. I still don’t know if it was the “right” way to resolve this issue; however, I did witness many adolescents take responsibility for their negative behaviors while dissolving their loyalty to their negative self-concepts.
People of all ages experience difficult feelings when they make a mistake and experience some kind of consequence, such as the feeling of remorse. The key is learning from the mistake without damaging our self-concepts. I will share this dramatic (in every sense of the word) technique done with adolescents in the residential treatment facility where I worked, as it may offer insight into working through the negative feelings that result from making a mistake. First, picture a large open room with the following people sitting on the floor in a huge circle: approximately three psychologists, three counselors, four direct care staff members (I was one of these, 20yrs old, didn’t even have my BA in psychology yet) and fifteen other adolescent residents. Everyone is very familiar with each other and is accustomed to the space and the exercises that take place, as we would be in “circle” for about 2.5 hours three times weekly.
An adolescent girl, Stacey, had been in the program for several months and had been doing exceptionally well despite the challenges of her background, the intense anger resulting from being forced to come here and despite the fact that she was the only person from her ethnic background at the program. We were all really proud of her great start and even though we were all familiar with the “honey moon” stage, I thought for sure she was different, or maybe I just really wanted her to get her wish and get through the program quickly as I could sense how culturally isolated she felt. I was informed before circle began that Stacey had drank alcohol on her home-visit, and because I seemed to be the staff member who she trusted the most, I was the person who would confront her in circle.
My knees would always shake a little and my heart would begin to pound before I got up to confront one of our kids, because I knew the intensity that was expected from me to correctly facilitate the intervention. The intervention would be me playing a part of Stacey that is no longer serving her and she would then be prompted to push this part of herself (me) out of the room using physical force with her hands placed on my shoulders. My role was to respond to her emotional intensity. Therefore, if she was genuinely expressing emotion and words in attempt to gain power over this negative part of herself, then I would let her be successful in moving me towards the door; however, if she was not energetically, verbally and emotionally strong her in her volition to rid herself of that negative part, I would stand strong and make the role play more real and dramatic until I was successful triggering this genuine emotion in her. Another piece, was that I was expected to scream as a way to inspire strong emotion in her, but never saying anything negative, only modeling an appropriate expression of feelings.
So this is how it went…I stood up and walked over to her and she knew to stand up to meet me. I asked her if she knew why I was confronting her and she said nonchalantly, “Ya, just cause I drank a beer,” and then the screaming began and went something like this, “I am so sad you would make a choice that keeps you from reaching your goals. I am so proud of the way you have stepped right in, working on yourself and working towards a successful future. You let the part of you who believes nothing good will ever come your way take over, the part of you that wants to be just like your mom.” The last sentence was said intentionally to trigger her emotion and to engage her in the role-play. It was a successful attempt as I noticed her hands were shaking with anger and her face tightened. She refused to speak or move, so I thought I would go just a little further, I screamed,” You are afraid that your life might turn out well and that succeeding might really separate you from your mom.” A tear rolled down her clenched jaws. A psychologist from across the room said “step into to it Stacey, you know Allyson hit something that feels true, but let her know you don’t want it to be true.” I stepped fully into the role.
“I think our mom wants us to be bad, I think she is jealous of our progress, so let’s #$%@ up so we can join her and make her more comfortable in her misery.” Stacey’s tears are coming faster, but she still hasn’t stepped in. “We were probably just going to screw up anyways, I don’t even give a *&#% about these people. They don’t know us; they don’t know where we come from. *&%$ them! Let’s go back to jail, maybe we can see our cousins there.” Finally, Stacey can’t take anymore and screams through her tears, “I hate that I believe you! I hate that I think this way!” She then places both of her hands on my shoulders and screams at the top of her lungs “NOOOOOOOO” as she pushes me toward the door. She then lets go, drops her head between her legs and begins sobbing. I stop as she obviously is facing the negative part of herself and the psychologist comforts her and asks if she wants to go further. With her head between her legs, snot coming from her nose and tears still pouring from her eyes, she shakes her head yes.
I am broken-hearted, I wish she didn’t want to go anymore, because even though I knew she was conquering a part of herself that might have destroyed her, it was sooooo painful to witness. I stayed strong and began again, “Stop crying, that is not going to help us, being weak is not going to get us out of here, why are you crying in front of all of these jerks? They don’t care.” She throws her head up and lets out a roar as she again pushes me with everything she has saying, “they do care, they care more than anyone I have ever had in my life before. I need these people! I don’t need you!” And eventually she was successful pushing this part of herself out of the room. She processed with the psychologist who had supported while I was listening outside the room at the door. Then I came in and we talked about how it felt to go through that: I explained how hard it was for me to play that part and then we hugged.
After the difficult emotions had subsided and her enhanced self-esteem began to surface, Stacey came up with her own consequence, which was working on a project for the residence that she believed would get her back on track after her mistake. The consequence now came from a place of self-esteem where she genuinely wanted a way to get back on track rather than being forced to do something that would have just enforced her belief that she was bad. Staff members were also required to work on our own issues with other staff doing these exact exercises, so I knew exactly how it felt to rid myself of a part of me that was not serving my life. This technique would not be right for everyone, but it was right for me and it was right for Stacey, and it is the best example I can give of a resolution that will turn any mistake into renewed positive sense of self.