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Have Faith: What You're Doing May Be Working

by Franklin Cameron, Psy.D., LPC, CAC III

Several years after the group experience described in “Bearing Unbearable Kids,” I was invited to lead a Conflict Resolution group in a high school. Seven 12th grade males were referred by their teachers because they had difficulty managing their anger in the classroom and with their peers. Truly, we all have fuses of varying lengths, and we all have our own ways of showing anger. But these youths were like volcanoes. They virtually blew their tops. Plus, they were completely unable to calm themselves enough to communicate about the triggering events. What’s more, they didn’t want to. That disagreements could actually be resolved or justice served and wrongs righted was way outside their experiential ranges.

One of the teachers had originally suggested that maybe a guest lecturer could be brought in to tell these guys how to manage their anger and resolve disputes. I wondered if such a lecture would just be more water off a duck’s back for them. Not because the guys were resistant or willful, but because some things can’t be understood in our heads without also
being experienced emotionally and kinesthetically (by our bodies). You can explain to me all you want why chocolate is so delicious, but until I taste it, I’m not going to be convinced.

I said: “Maybe what these guys need is group counseling.” Ideally, that would include education about conflict resolution coupled with the experience of
bearing their own emotions in a container that could bear them.

“To Bear” is a many splendored concept. As we have seen, it means to be able to hold and tolerate. It also means to carry within oneself impulses and emotions that need time to mature before they are sprung upon the world. The process may cause discomfort, anxiety and frustration. But when the time is right, something meaningful and useful can be brought forth. We humans do this all the time with our emotions. Ideally, by the time we reach adulthood, some mastery of this process had been achieved. However, almost all of us know adults who have a very difficult time “carrying their own water.” If they get upset, everyone in their immediate vicinity gets wet. What’s more, rarely is there much understanding of what the mess was all about. As children, they probably did not have the opportunity to learn how raw emotions are
matured into useful emotions. When useful emotions are communicated they can bring about negotiations with others and unsatisfactory situations can get corrected. When raw emotions are spewed by adults they create much the same effect as a child’s tantrum, with one added quality—they can be truly destructive. Big adolescents spewing raw emotions can be destructive, too.

Since I was presenting these ideas to a group of Special Education teachers in a school known for its creativity and willingness to
persevere with challenging students, they said, “Fine. Do it. Your idea of a counseling group sounds great.”

Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for”? I soon discovered the group I envisioned presented some unique challenges. For one thing, a critical factor in any counseling group is confidentiality. Each member has to know for sure that what is said
in the group stays in the group. Families have this value in common. It is generally understood that intimate details about family members are not to be indiscriminately told outside the family. To reveal private information about a sister or brother to your friends, for example, would be regarded as high betrayal. Similarly, in a group all the members have to believe that the others will “hold” their confidences. In the context of high school, where gossip can be the order of the day, and given that these guys didn’t particularly like each other, I quickly realized the container I wanted to create was going to be a bit leaky.

During our first meeting I learned that several of the youths had acquired the diagnosis of Conduct Disorder in their preteens. A few had even been institutionalized for antisocial behavior. One of them had attempted suicide. Most of them had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The remainder had ADD. Only one was not on a mood altering medication of some kind.

During our first meeting, I waited until they were unbearable—which didn’t take long—before using the intervention described in “Bearing Unbearable Kids.” It had the same immediate effect. But the effect quickly wore off because of another factor I had not considered fully. These kids saw each other every day at school and therefore had
reputations to maintain when they were outside the group. Shall we say, maintaining a reputation is not conducive to exploring one’s authenticity? Truly, this container was getting leakier by the moment.

I still didn’t want to default to a control model in which I, as the educator, struggled to impart information while attempting to control my students. In a counseling group, education can take place, to be sure. However, the underlying emphasis is on returning the youths’
own energy to themselves, so they can learn how to control it. Was I being completely unrealistic?

I set some ground rules. The guys were invited to speak their minds and their truth in any language that was authentic to them. The restrictions were few: They had to remain in their chairs, they couldn’t throw things, and no one was to storm out of the room until the group was formally concluded. Even though you’re bearing and tolerating, it’s very important to have rules. Rules are actually
part of the structure of the holding environment. Rules are agreements about what is workable, acceptable and fair given what the group hopes to achieve. Everyone agreed to the rules.

The group met once a week for 1 1/2 hours over a period of eight weeks. Sometimes it got so verbally raucous, I understand passersby would pause in amazement in the hall outside our door. One of the kids had seen his brother die a year before. He had never really grieved, and
carried around a lot of guilt for just being alive. He was the least interactive kid in the group and pretended to find everything very funny. One day we were playing with what proved to be an interesting concept—the difference between warrior energy and loving energy. Each kid was invited to contemplate the loving and warrior energy within himself, describe them, and determine which one was stronger. Finally, what would it be like to get them into balance?

The guys found the discussion very interesting—even the kid who laughed at everything. He actually stopped laughing. However, when it was his turn to share and he got deeper into describing his internal world to the others, he passed a point of comfort and reverted to laughing again. Then, he tossed an eraser. Next, he stood and, still laughing, tipped over his chair. Finally, in a mock-fight style, he threw himself across the laps of three other guys, flailing his arms and repeating, “I hate you. I hate you,” laughing all the while. The other guys
gingerly warded off his swinging arms. One of them got his glasses knocked off. I heard another kid’s shirt tear.

I sensed the depth of emotion this kid’s laughter was covering. He had momentarily lowered his mask and let the others glimpse his inner world. This was a breakthrough for him, but I worried how the other boys would ultimately react to his aggressive attempts to cover it. I stood and gently pulled the kid off the others and guided him back into his chair.

A lot was at stake. Let it be said here that it’s critical for a container to contain. Each time a holding environment fails, kids learn that their
emotional energy is unbearable and therefore cannot be transformed. Transformed to what? How about relationship, social connectedness, appreciation, creativity, and joyous action? Again, only as the holding environment bears them without shattering do kids learn how to bear themselves.

As soon as I returned to my seat, the kid tumbled out of his chair again, and still laughing, hurled himself into yet another kid I knew he actively disliked. Was he going to get decked? How long could I let this evolve? These guys were known for their explosive tempers. Was a chair to be hurled out the window next? The laughing kid was physically small. Would someone throw him out the window, too? He was still
releasing a lot of emotion and on one level that was good. On another level, I was responsible for everyone’s physical safety--not to mention, the school’s real estate and furniture.

Finally, I made a choice for order. I stood and, in my most authoritarian voice,
attempted to take charge. The guys totally ignored me. Everyone was laughing now. One of them said to me, “You’re breaking the rules—you’re standing.” Considering that all the rules had already been fractured, that really annoyed me, if the truth be told. Was the group in open rebellion? Again I pulled the laughing kid off the other guys and guided him back to his chair. When he tried to rise, I made it clear he was to remain seated. My displeasure was all too apparent.

Part of me wanted to yell like a beleaguered parent: “If you don’t behave you’re going to get sent to your room!” (Unfortunately, this was their room). Fortunately, the bell rang. The period was over. A crisis was averted. However, we were
unable to process what had happened—which was a very “ungroup” way to part. After they all left, I closed the door and sat for many long minutes. “What just happened?” I wondered. “Did I handle that right? Was this group a bad idea from the start?”

The next week, I learned something. I learned that the process of bearing can be going on even when you think it isn’t. The boy who laughed at everything was not present (to my chagrin, he had gone on a field trip with his science class). The other kids were eager to talk about the incident, however. They said they were disappointed with me. “Why did you stop him?” they asked. Before I could explain, they began telling how his behavior had not made them mad. On a profound level, they had understood that the laughing kid was indeed
getting in touch with deeper feelings. Some of them tried to describe their own feelings as they had struggled with him. They said they had not wanted to hit him back, just hold him off and help bring him down. As they talked, they sounded amazed at themselves. One even said, “I was trying to be gentle with him.” What they described sounded a lot like compassion. Now, I was the one who was amazed.

When kids are seriously testing the container, it can be hard to determine whether their testing has gone too far, or you should continue to let it play out. As parents and teachers and counselors, we have to think about the safety of everyone. Sometimes we just can’t chance it. Sometimes we make the right call. Sometimes we don’t.

In this particular incident, some guys in the group were quick to inform me how I had made the wrong call. Two others said it was not my attempts to restore order that bothered them: It was
my angry reaction. The learning opportunity that followed derived from my willingness to discuss the event, digest the details, and learn from it myself. Could it then be said that the container was holding me? Definitely. As parents, teachers and counselors, we must never imagine for a moment that, when we create a container, we are not in it with everyone else. Being in charge does not make us immutable.

The big learning opportunity for me, however, involved something else—and I still marvel over it. I realized how quickly a container can become a holding environment for our young. Entering a container to hold them seems to be as natural for young humans as being in a lair is for bear cubs, nesting is for chicks, or cocooning is for caterpillars. However, there is a difference. Since we are not creatures informed by instinct as much as by our desire and ability to learn, almost as quickly as our young enter a container, they will start testing it. That is how we humans learn. What we learn has a lot to do with
how the container responds.

In this article, I do not profess to have examined all the ways a container can legitimately respond to testing. The essence I’m trying to highlight involves the way emotion was experienced within the group during this incident. As leaky as that Conflict Resolution group’s container was, something important started happening when the laughing kid stopped laughing. Testing was definitely going on. But there was also love in that room, as all those guys compassionately held back their retaliatory responses and let the kid work through his emotions. The container was not only holding.
It was transforming a bunch of angry, aggressive young men into the willing bearers of another’s emotional healing. What those guys taught me was I need not have doubted it.

Because of this experience, and many others like it, may I suggest: Parents, teachers and counselors,
have faith. What you’re doing just may be working, even more than you know.

© 2002 by Franklin Cameron. All Rights Reserved.