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The process by which we force teenagers to take responsibility for negative and even violent behavior comes to us from the ultra-turbulent 1960s when teens basically ran amok. Under Juvenile Court jurisdiction teens can be required to participate in what are called "community" meetings run by knowledgeable adults.

As the meetings begin, the adults are silent. Teens can't handle silence, especially in group situations. Initially, they will go through a series of negative statements, often blaming others

(teachers, the police, etc.). Teens also can't handle adults who refuse to be drawn into any contentious dialogue and who make no judgmental statements. Basically, they will begin by competing with each other to see who can emerge as a (negative) leader. (Teen leadership is always initially negative—they're teenagers!)

As teens realize that the meetings can and will go on indefinitely, they begin to drop their negative facades. Slowly, they begin to be "real" (honest). Slowly, they begin to accept responsibility for what they have done. Positive teen leaders begin to emerge. There will now be a critical turning point in this sociological (not psychological) group process. Initially, positive teen leaders may and usually do begin to subtly manipulate the group ("power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely"). The solution here is to immediately isolate the offender(s) and individually confront them through the "silent treatment", withhold privileges or impose sanctions until they come clean, and then, when they are ready, force them to “own up" to the entire group in order to participate further in the community meetings.

The negative teen culture is now ready to begin the process of becoming relentlessly positive. The teens all know what the excluded teen has been doing but they are waiting to see if the adults catch on. As the teens realize that the adults will not be taken in by negative teen leadership masquerading as a positive, real trust begins to develop. Teens now openly share personal issues, take full responsibility for their behavior, and help others to do the same. They become remorseful over what they have done and seek advice from the adults about how they can begin to change.

The final step in this process (called Therapeutic Community (TC) —not reached by all teens—comes as they contemplate a return to freedom. Rather than seeing it as a welcome relief from (usually) congregate care, they struggle to conceptualize how they can ever successfully handle the specific issues they know will await them (family discord, poverty, drugs, societal attitudes and expectations, race, the compelling influence of influential peers “on the outside", etc.). Teens like this are now ready for release provided a strong reentry plan is formulated. Despite the best of intentions, many teens slowly but surely crumble under the relentless pressure that contributed to their becoming a delinquent statistic in the first place.

Reentry needs to include weekly group meetings similar to those that finally helped them "get it together"; hopefully with at least some of the same teens in the original delinquent cohort. Such reentry groups will continually and consistently challenge the teens to maintain and practice the sociological skills and understandings they learned through the TC process. Being able to maintain and foster the positive culture of the “inside" group through the reentry group is critical in preventing relapse.

This is the approach we need to employ in our management of teenagers in trouble.  All teenagers struggle daily to learn social constraints on their behavior. When we as the adults fail to use sociology—the science of group behavior—as well as psychology, the science of individual behavior, in their care and upbringing, we make a difficult task even more difficult.  




                                                       JJanuary 2014


January 2018

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