Positive Peer Culture

I have to tell you – because it’s the kind of person that I am – about both the good and the not-so-good in adoptive parenting. If you can learn from my failures or mishaps, then those sad or disappointing or negative-in-some-way experiences will also find some good end. We have to help each other – not just pat each other on the back. When it’s tough, it’s tough; and we need support and encouragement because we love our children, our families, and we need to survive the painful stuff in a way that helps our children (and ourselves) become stronger and better people, right?

The thing I have to tell you is that we sent our middle child to a therapeutic boarding school. Yes, it was a gut-wrenching decision after a highly stressful period of exploring many other options and finding that none of them worked. I love my daughter with all my heart and soul. I think about her every minute of every day. I miss her terribly. But, this thing we did – we did the right thing for her. I hear it in her voice when she calls, twice a week, ten minutes at a time. She knew, on some level, that she needed this “break” from the reality she had created for herself. She needs this time to reflect, to be away, and to decide who she wants to be in the long run.

I won’t get into the story of how we decided on this particular school. Suffice it to say that a trusted friend and therapist, personally and professionally experienced with adoption, directed us to it. She saw more clearly than we could see – vision blurred by grief and will weakened by months (maybe years) of struggle – that Skye was waving a flag, proclaiming: “I need something else. These local interventions aren’t working for me.”

I’ve been reading about the philosophy and practices of the place where Skye is living now in a book called Positive Peer Culture, by Vorath and Brendtro. I want to share what I’ve learned, so far. This will give you a basis for understanding our journey as it unfolds. Moreover, I want to share what I’ve learned because, well, because it just makes so much damn sense. As parents of teenagers, the concepts contained in Positive Peer Culture (PPC) might help all our kids, whether they need residential treatment or occupy the status of “role model” for their peers.

The first line of the book got me hooked: “…young people can develop self-worth, dignity, and responsibility only as they become committed to the positive values of helping and caring for others.” The authors go on to say that contemporary society does not provide meaningful roles for teens. Teens are in cultural limbo. They are neither obedient children nor responsible adults. Since they are prevented from assuming adult responsibilities, they create their own subculture out of a need to be more than children and to achieve some independence.

We adults often respond to the power of this peer subculture in a number of ineffective ways: (1) conflict (or a contest for power); (2) liberation (or ‘go do your own thing’); (3) surrender (out of a feeling of powerlessness); and (4) imitation (joining the opposition).

I can personally attest to having tried and failed in all these ways. John and I have engaged in voice raising power struggles with our kids over chores, homework, activities and events, etc. We’ve let go – trusting our teenagers’ decision-making powers, only to be shocked (and more) when the results were disastrous. We’ve surrendered to incessant demands for stuff or privileges out of sheer exhaustion when our better instincts knew there was danger involved. And we’ve joined with our teens in behaviors, dress, or practices only to wind up feeling foolish.

PPC takes a different approach. It enlists the opposition. PPC recognizes that the peer group is the most potent influence on teenagers, but that adults still have much to offer them.

“How does it ‘enlist the opposition’?” you ask. The first step is to look at our assumptions about human behavior and motivation. The classic psychoanalytic position suggests human behavior is a response to innate drives that are satisfied by the pleasure principle. PPC posits an alternative view: It is the idea that it is essential for a human being to care for others without thought of return, and that such acts of service can heal psychological wounds. (If this sounds theological to you, I would agree. Perhaps these concepts sound so appealing to me because they resonate with my own religious upbringing. But the beauty here is that PPC transcends specific religious practices or faiths and, therefore, is not exclusive.)

In contrast to traditional treatment approaches, PPC does not ask whether a person wants to receive help, but whether she is willing to give help. As she gives and becomes of value to others, she increases her own feelings of worthiness and builds a more positive self-concept.

For an individual to feel positive about herself, two conditions must be met: (1) feeling accepted by others; and (2) feeling one deserves acceptance. In traditional therapies, often the second condition is overlooked. A person may learn to conform to specific behavioral expectations and, accordingly, receive acceptance. But, on the inside, she still feels unworthy. PPC suggests that to feel deserving of acceptance, she must start making positive contributions to others and stop harmful behavior – but the latter will be the natural result of helping others.

“So, what does this look like?” Ideally, youth are put in groups of nine under the guidance of an adult leader. The youth assume responsibility for helping one another and peer pressure becomes a resource rather than a liability. The teens learn how to identify problems and how to work toward their resolution, both in group sessions and in day-to-day activities.

It’s important to know that a group member does not have to be perfect or good or cured to start helping others. Consider AA or any of the “anonymous” programs as an analogy. These programs, like AA, assume that those who have encountered difficulties in their lives are often in the best position to understand the problems of others. In fact, the act of helping becomes the first decisive step in overcoming one’s own problems.

PPC doesn’t view teenagers – even those who have experienced conflict, neglect, or rejection – as weakened or damaged by those experiences. Rather, PPC acknowledges the teen’s strength, toughness, and determination in standing up to others in power. Once the “toughness” is redirected, these teens can be as strong in providing help as they were in provoking conflict.

No one is put in the “hot seat” to break down his or her defenses. Instead, the preoccupation of PPC is to show concern. PPC assumes a teen will initially distrust the group, and the burden is on the group to show that distrust is groundless. Group members assist rather than exploit, laying the groundwork for mutual trust.

“So where does the motivation to change come into play?” PPC maintains that young people do not resist change. They resist being changed. Therefore, giving help is given higher status than receiving help. A climate is created where all behavior that hurts another person is noticed and challenged. A participant will begin to question his existing values. He is awakened to his lack of concern for self and others.

Another interesting aspect of PPC is that is doesn’t force the participant to work on past problems. It operates in real-time, with behavior that is going on now. After a couple of weeks, when the new arrival is acclimated to the group, he does tell his life story to the group. This aids the group in helping the new arrival. But the story is told primarily to help the group see how the new arrival views himself. Further, the act of telling gives the new arrival, who has heard the stories of others, an investment in the group: “I am one of you now.”

Finally, it should be noted that problems are viewed as opportunities. Problems are part of everyone’s life. Acknowledging problems is a sign of strength. Problems give others a chance to understand the other better and to help find solutions. Problems will cease to be a concern when the person no longer needs to hurt him/herself or others.

There is more to say, but I will stop for now. I hope you can begin to understand why I believe Skye is in an environment that will help her. But I also can’t stop thinking about all the events that happened before we made this significant decision to send her away. If Skye and her peer group had been focused on caring for others and on helping each other with problems rather than turning a blind eye, would we be in this position?

I leave you with this question: is PPC something that can be taught to a community where some of its members seem to function fairly well while others struggle in silence or are ignored?

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