When working with adolescents in a group setting, it is important to provide opportunities to explore, evaluate and process the dynamics that occur within their homes. After all, eventually they will be faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to apply what they have learned in therapy to situations at home.
I have formulated a creative, psychoeducational task that allows adolescents to assess and explore the similarities and differences between their “ideals” and what really occurs within their unique and, at times, chaotic family relationships. I have broken this down into three simple categories. I ask the adolescents to draw an illustration of a house. Inside the house are to be three distinct rooms with boundaries, because boundaries are healthy no matter how you slice that pie. The adolescents usually laugh at that analogy. Utilizing that humor, I then invite them to talk more about the boundaries at home.
I next ask them to label each of the three distinct rooms in the house. One section is labeled “Think,” another section is labeled “Do” and the last section is labeled “Say.”
I ask them to title their paper “Family Shoulds.” As a group, we discuss what the word “should” refers to. Typically, one group member will mention his or her impression of the word “should” as a reflection of a demand, expectation or wish. All of those definitions are acceptable for this task.
The idea is to have each group member write a list of three items for each category inside the house: three things they believe a family “should think,” three things they believe a family “should do” and three things they believe a family “should say.”
I have found that when I simplify group tasks in terms of “threes,” that the group flows more smoothly. For example, three rooms in the house and a list of three items for each of the three categories. I think this provides the task a sense of organization and predictability, thus increasing the group members’ level of trust and safety. This creates a less intimidating environment for each group member to talk about his or her family issues or other issues that may come up.
It is important to invite each group member to ask questions about the assignment. For example, I usually receive questions such as “What do you mean by things a family should say?” You might encourage the adolescents to write down specific things they believe a family should say to one another and then apply this to the other categories as well. For example, you might encourage the adolescents to write down three things they believe a family “should do together.” Or encourage them to write down a list of three things they believe a family “should think about one another.”
In the second component to this task, you instruct each group member to draw another outline of a house with the same three categories: think, say and do. Except this time, you ask the adolescents to write down their beliefs about their “Family Reals.” It is important to have a discussion about what you mean by the term “reals.” Usually, one group member will suggest that “reals” refers to facts or reality.
As the counselor, you can then take the focus of the group and place it on sharing ideas of “what actually goes on” from day to day in their families. Discuss how this is similar to or different from their beliefs about what a family “should” be doing, thinking, or saying.
This invites conversation about specific issues within their families that the adolescents want to address. You can also have a discussion about what “shoulds” are healthy versus what “should” are unhealthy. Finally, you can discuss which “shoulds” are realistic to address, identifying achievable, measurable steps to work toward at home.
As the adolescents listen to the other group members speaking about their family issues, they begin to feel a sense of validation and belongingness. They cultivate a belief that “I am not alone.” As anyone who has studied Irvin Yalom likely knows, these three components are critical to the progress of individuals in group settings.
This task can also be used as a tool in family therapy sessions, serving as a less intimidating way to open the door to communication. It can be used to explore and address each family member’s expectations for others in the family unit.
It can be emotionally difficult for adolescents to talk directly about family issues. But as a counselor, I believe that if you can access adolescents’ creativity and provide a level of predictability, organization and safety, it will open the door to communication between you and your client. This can then be transferred to work with the family as a whole.
I believe this task creates opportunities for individual growth within the therapeutic relationship and opportunities for growth within the family system by reinforcing the difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations, discussion of problem-solving and implementation of communication skills.
Brandon S. Ballantyne is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. Contact him at email@example.com.