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Talk with Teens About What Matters to Them: An interview with author Jean Sunde Peterson

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~ By Colette

As a middle school student, how would you have responded if the school counselor had invited you to join a small group discussion, where topics ranged from stress, to your family, to your ideas about the future? What if your peer leadership group, anger-management group, or grief group talked about these in an established weekly discussion? As a teen, would it have changed your family dynamics if you had been guided through discussions about strategies for coping with stress, mood swings, and life satisfaction with your parents and siblings?

Talk with Teens About What Matters to Them: Ready-to-use Discussions on Stress, Identity, Feelings, Relationships, Family and the Future is a book, with an accompanying CD-Rom, which is intended to help adults guide youth through exactly these types of discussions. The goal of these discussions is to support teens’ social and emotional development by giving them the opportunity to talk about their feelings, build self-esteem, and affirm themselves. The 75 discussions are broken into six topic areas (stress, identity, feelings, relationships, family, and the future), with a variety of sessions under each topic.

The author, Jean Sunde Peterson, is a professor at Purdue University in the Department of Educational Studies, where she is the director of school counselor preparation. Before that she was a classroom teacher and developed summer language camps for children. She is a licensed mental health counselor and continues to be involved in clinical work with youth. Dr. Peterson has facilitated over 1,600 small-group sessions with teens. Additionally, her graduate students intern at local schools, using the book in a variety of school-based settings.

I find the premise of Talk with Teens intriguing. As I’ve read through the Introduction and some of the discussion areas, I’ve often wondered how I would have responded if I had been given a chance to participate in such a group and had been encouraged to think about and share my perspective on some of these topics (like “Each of Us is an Interesting Story,” “Fear, Worry, and Anxiety” or “Who Can We Lean On?”). So, I am delighted that Dr. Peterson has agreed to answer a few of my questions about her book.

Colette: Dr. Peterson, one aspect of Talk with Teens that intrigues me is that it does not have a therapy focus; instead the goal is to initiate and have group discussions about teens’ social and emotional development. Can you briefly explain what you mean by that, and why it is important?

Dr. Peterson: Small-group work with kids and in schools is not routinely emphasized in counselor training. A required course in group theory and techniques may not go beyond a therapy-type group experience with graduate-student peers. Therefore, when considering the 10-session group requirement our interns are required to have, it’s not surprising that their site supervisors encourage them to organize kids for anger-management issues, behavior problems, bereavement, bullying, divorce, or social difficulties, for example, not considering proactive group work at all, which is appropriate for all students. These supervisors may not facilitate small groups themselves, especially at the secondary level, and “group curriculum” is rare. In fact, I hardly ever see descriptions of prevention-oriented, development-focused groups in textbooks.

Rest assured, I do believe kids with shared concerns can benefit from a group experience. However, focused-but-flexible small groups about “growing up,” learning expressive language, becoming better known by peers, and gaining skills in listening and responding can benefit even kids with major life-event concerns—and with significant mental health concerns. Struggles with developmental tasks need to be acknowledged and supported and normalized. Middle school and high school kids, regardless of ability, achievement, culture, or socioeconomic level, may not have an opportunity to talk about development as development—and make sense of themselves. The topics in Talk with Teens are all development-oriented.

Many, if not most, student problems are social/relational. Groups are inherently social—potentially a laboratory for addressing these. Teens are often surprised to discover common ground. Groups can help them learn conversation skills, develop empathy, learn to give and receive compliments, get credible feedback, discover that others also need support, recognize others’ perspectives, and feel connected meaningfully to at least a few other kids their age.

School counselors often have huge student loads, and long-term individual sessions with kids with obvious critical needs are not feasible, equitable, or an efficient delivery of services. However, not only those who are acting out, but also a high percentage of students whose struggles are not visible, can benefit greatly from group discussions. With good planning and patience with logistics, a counselor can arrange for all students to experience a short series of group meetings at some time over one or two years.

Colette: What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Dr. Peterson: When I became director of a high school program for high-ability kids, I drew on my 20 years as an English teacher. My students had written a lot in response to literature. I had learned about “invisible struggles” when the developmental challenges of book characters resonated with them. The best writers were not always high achievers. I became fascinated with developmental challenges and differences in developmental tempo. So half of the 25 program options I created were intended to appeal to gifted underachievers (i.e., offering more than just extra and faster academic work). I had concluded that underachievement is largely developmental, and that underachievers need to be affirmed for their intelligence—even when they are not able to, or willing to, invest in academic work. (Later, as a researcher, I learned that many underachievers do eventually change, especially when developmental task accomplishments converge.)

One program option was topic-focused “discussion groups,” with over 100 kids a week participating during the two daily lunch periods. This group work led to the book. The kids appreciated a place where performance wasn’t the emphasis—and where social and emotional development was. Elsewhere in their lives, they perceived little attention to their emotional well-being, doubts, developmental challenges, anxiety, and fears. They sensed that revealing vulnerabilities might disappoint someone who was highly invested in their performance. I became a believer in the prevention aspect of group work. Underachievers and high achievers were together in the groups and became well acquainted. I could see how important it was for them to connect. They broke down stereotypes of each other. Both had significant internal struggles. I later tested the approach in middle schools with a wide range of students at risk for poor outcomes and subsequently approached a publisher about doing a book.

Colette: My understanding is that earlier editions of your book have been used in a variety of settings, from leadership groups, to life skills classes, to family therapy and in-patient therapy. In other words, it has been used both for primary and secondary prevention. That’s a broad context. Why do you think it is so helpful in so many different types of situations?

Dr. Peterson: Yes, earlier editions have been used in many venues—sometimes to my surprise. In residential settings, patients seem to respond positively to the non-confrontational attention to their social and emotional development. I myself have used it in substance-abuse treatment with adolescents and with adults, in traditional and alternative schools, at group-building retreats, in churches, and in couples and family therapy, with “activity sheets” generating complex, thoughtful reflection. Some of my graduate students have used it effectively with groups of teen mothers, teen fathers, or kids on probation. The approach doesn’t intentionally use discomfort to provoke emotions, as may be the case in therapy groups. It meets kids “where they are.” Group members seem to feel safe—safe enough to talk about developmental challenges. The aim of primary prevention is to prevent problems from developing; in secondary prevention, counselors seek to prevent existing problems from becoming worse. I believe this approach, with an emphasis on developmental challenges, can help to accomplish both.

It’s important not to underestimate the power of semi-structured, topic-focused discussion. When I demonstrate the approach at workshops, participants see that depth and significant self-reflection can happen rather quickly. The topics and suggestions help leaders maintain a focus on areas members might otherwise squirm away from. The semi-structured aspect helps to keep dominators in tow and give shy members a chance to be heard, while also being flexible in direction. Kids appreciate that.

Colette: Can you talk a bit more about how youth respond to these group discussions? For example, what is a typical response when they are first introduced? How long does it take for youth to get comfortable with the format and structure of the groups?

Dr. Peterson: Most kids have never experienced “a group,” and therefore I’ve seen curiosity, anxiety, eagerness, and suspicion at the first meeting. Some bring in angry feelings related to court-ordered groups they have participated in. They might say, “So this is therapy, right?” We explain that the purpose is simply to talk with peers about growing up—not to “shape anyone up.” Some kids have been recommended for a group because “they probably would appreciate the attention” or “they’re new this year” or “they could benefit from connecting to other kids.” Regardless, it’s important to demonstrate, at the first session, what “group” will be like. I don’t even recommend explaining “group rules” until later—and then only if needed. A better approach, in my opinion, is to catch them being “a good group” and use those moments to norm group behavior.

My graduate students are currently using the book in a new alternative school, where groups are part of the school curriculum. Regardless of life experiences, including severe trauma and neglect, most kids are invested. Very few are still resistant, and I expect even them to settle in eventually. My guess is that they aren’t used to being respected and listened to by adults. Having a poised, nonjudgmental adult interested in their “growing up” who is able to stay poised, no matter what is said, may also be new. The groups have become a place of safety, allowing members to relax, to connect to others meaningfully, to consider problematic behaviors at “their own speed,” to feel validated for their experiences, and perhaps to feel emotions that otherwise are denied.

Some groups have immediate rapport. A few take several weeks to “become a group.” Most bond somewhere between these extremes. If a teen has never felt understood (because of extremely high ability, ADHD, appearance, bullying, or heavy-handed or capricious punishment at home, for example) or has been traumatized, trust may develop slowly. I remember a very bright eighth-grade boy who refused to sit in a group. He sat away from the table for a whole semester, but near enough to hear. Near the end of the series, he joined the group. He said he’d never felt that anyone could understand him—but now believed the group could have, and he apologized. Sometimes leaders need great patience and perseverance. High anxiety or cynicism may initially contribute to behavior problems, but almost always that subsides. In our experience, applying basic listening/responding skills and taking the guidelines seriously (detailed at the outset of the book) result in beneficial, meaningful, and satisfying experiences for both leaders and group members.

Colette: Thank you Dr. Peterson. It has been a pleasure learning more about Talk with Teens and your inspiration for writing it.


Colette Kimball is Associate Editor at The Prevention Researcher.

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