Group Work with Adolescents, Second Edition: Principles and Practice

Group Work with Adolescents, Second Edition: Principles and Practice

by Andrew Malekoff

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Group Work with Adolescents, Second Edition: Principles and Practice by Andrew Malekoff

This popular text provides essential knowledge and skills for conducting creative, strengths-based group work with adolescents. A rich introduction to the field, enlivened by numerous illustrations from actual sessions, the book provides principles and guidelines for practice in a wide range of settings. Andrew Malekoff covers all phases of group work, from planning to leavetaking, and highlights the value of self-reflection for successfully handling even the most challenging group situations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593850692
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 09/10/2004
Series: Clinical Practice with Children, Adolescents, and Families Series
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 378
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Andrew Malekoff, MSW, CASAC, is associate executive director for North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, New York, and editor of the journal Social Work with Groups.

Read an Excerpt

Group Work with Adolescents

Principles and Practice
By Andrew Malekoff

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2004 The Guilford Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59385-069-7

Chapter One

Adolescent Development, Risk, and Opportunity


In my 30 years of working with adolescents, I have noticed a trend in my conversations with people who are not involved with adolescents in groups and who inquire about what kind of work I do. When they discover that much of my life has been devoted to working with adolescents, often in groups, there is a typical reaction that I've come to expect. The discussion usually goes something like this:

Colleague: You work with adolescents? [Translation: Omigosh!]

Andy: Yeah, mostly.

(A moment of silence follows, perhaps an unconscious offering of condolence.)

Colleague: (nervous laughter) You must have a lot of patience. [Translation: I'm glad that it's you and not me.]

Andy: (in a feeble attempt to cut through the tension) Yeah, well, actually I've been doing this for 30 years. Before that, I was an adolescent myself, so I guess I never quite escaped; probably never will.

Colleague: (chuckling) What kind of work do you do with them?

Andy: Some individual, some family, some outreach, a little of this and a little of that, but mostly I like to workwith kids in groups. (In my best advocacy voice) Kids really need to have good experiences in groups, ya know?

(There is no concealing the combined expression of shock and amazement staring me in the face.)

Colleague: You work with them in groups? I don't know how you do it! (smiling, head shaking) I tried it just once or twice. That was enough. What a disaster. I couldn't get them to do anything. They wouldn't talk. They were, like, totally out of control, did whatever they wanted, and didn't listen to a thing I said, a real waste of time-mine and theirs. You work with them in groups? Really? [Translation: What a jerk.]


The composite picture of the behavior of this age is contradictory and confused. -H. S. Sullivan (1953, p. 93)

Adolescence-roughly the second decade of life-is well known as a period of accelerated physical, psychological, and social growth. Individual variation in the rate of maturation makes it impossible to assign a specific chronological age to the onset of adolescence (Bloch, 1995). In my view, elasticity and overlap are invaluable allies in observing human development through the lens of theory. Evolving stages of psychosocial development can be viewed as having permeable boundaries through which the growing individual moves almost imperceptibly from one phase to the next and, during periods of regression, slips back from time to time for self-protection and refueling. The age range of the young people who populate the pages of Group Work with Adolescents includes individuals from 9 to 21 years old, a span covering what will be referred to throughout this book as young/ early (9-14), middle (14-16), and older/later (16-21) adolescence.

The Journey Begins

The upper and lower age limits of adolescence have expanded over the years, with, according to some estimates, physical/pubertal growth occurring up to 4 years earlier than it did a century ago. The dramatic change in the onset of puberty, which is principally determined by genetic predisposition and environmental factors (e.g., climate), has been attributed to industrialization and improvements in health, sanitation, and nutrition (Bloch, 1995; Germain, 1991; Steinberg, 1986). Pubertal growth is most easily observable by change in the physical size of the child and the transformation from a generally undifferentiated body shape to a gender distinctive shape. Boys get taller, are able to produce sperm, have deeper voices, and develop pubic hair. Along with a slightly earlier growth spurt, changes in girls include breast development, menstrual period, and pubic hair. In females, changes in height, weight, and general body characteristics begin anywhere between 9 and 14 years of age. In males, these changes occur, on average, about a year later (Newton, 1995).

The accelerated physical growth during adolescence has profound social and psychological implications for the individual, transcending the mere fact that one's appearance and physique have changed. Sensitivity about one's appearance and its relationship to peer-group affiliation are potential sources of emotional stress for adolescents. This may be especially so for individuals who experience either precocious or delayed physical growth and who experience social estrangement as a result.

Aside from and/or alongside the physical changes of puberty, there is an observable trend in which many 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds are assuming the bearing of older teenagers. Their clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, swagger, posturing, language, and overall relational style create the illusion of individuals more than slightly beyond their years. Beyond style, increasing numbers of preteenagers are exhibiting behaviors traditionally associated with teenagers, including: opposition to adult authority and influence; disrespect for others' rights and property (e.g., stealing, vandalism); and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, smoking, and sex (Acoca, 1999; Bloch, 1995).

Some of this behavior can be explained by the normative process of children emulating behaviors of their parents or members of a social group or gang that has assumed certain family-like functions (Bloch, 1995). Another influence is the increased access to media and various forms of information technology (i.e., personal computers, online services). As a consequence, younger children are gaining an uncanny familiarity with the intricacies and accoutrements of the older world without the accompanying emotional and cognitive equipment necessary to manage this information.

Television seems to exist primarily "to deliver an audience with just the right demographic composition to a corresponding advertiser" (Strasburger, 1995, p. 17). This marketing strategy has a heavy impact on children and adolescents in the critical health-related areas affecting their lives (e.g., violence, sexuality, drugs, and nutrition; Garbarino, 1995). For example, various clothing advertisers (e.g., for blue jeans, underwear) leave the consumer with photographically rendered illusions of sensuality and physical maturity that, in all likelihood, extend beyond the maturity of the individual who is used to project the image. The average American child, by the time he or she leaves high school, has been exposed to almost 400,000 TV commercials (Finnegan, 1999). Fifteen-year-old Nikki Reed, who cowrote the screenplay for the harrowing independent movie Thirteen, was asked why the teen years are so difficult. Her answer: "Perfection is crammed down our throats. We're surrounded by models ... who can wear shirts shorter than my bra and have perfect abs. Everyone is trying to be perfect and without Photoshop it's not possible" (Setoodeh, 2003, p. 10).

How is this kaleidoscope of ideas and images metabolized by young people who are lacking the psychic tools to sort it out and put it into some perspective? Without external support to fill the gap and make some sense of this whirlwind of information and values, what the young person does with it is either left to chance or the misfortunes of ill-informed choice. Group work is one avenue for promoting the reflection and critical thinking necessary to clarify values and make healthy decisions.

The Developmental Tasks of Adolescence

Regardless of any argument concerning the chronological onset of adolescence or social influences that affect developing children, there is universal agreement that "developmental tasks" necessary for adolescents in our culture to become healthy, functioning adults require great effort and time to achieve. They can be summed up as follows:

Separating from family: Testing and experimentation in relationships with peers and authority figures, leading to the achievement of emotional independence from parents and other adults; increasing autonomous functioning; developing a capacity for greater intimacy with peers.

Forging a healthy sexual identity: Accepting one's body and physique and learning to use it effectively; achieving a masculine or feminine social role.

Preparing for the future: Skill development and selection of a career; preparing for relational aspirations, for example, marriage and family life.

Developing a moral value system: Developing a set of values and an ethical system to guide one's behavior; desiring and achieving socially responsible behavior.

Adolescence today is an age of particular vulnerability, a time in which young people are experiencing the sexual awakenings of puberty, facing increasing social and educational demands, and experimenting with more freedom, autonomy, and choice than ever before. Group work is an indispensable method for helping children to meet the developmental tasks and navigate the changing currents of adolescence.

Quantum Leap

In the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin is a precocious child, and his friend Hobbes is a stuffed toy tiger brought to life by Calvin's vivid imagination. Their "conversations" often belie Calvin's years. For example:

Calvin: We all want meaningful lives. We look for meaning in everything we do. But suppose there is no meaning! Suppose life is fundamentally absurd! Suppose there's no reason, or truth, or rightness in anything! What if nothing means anything? What if nothing really matters?

Hobbes: I guess there's no harm in a little wishful thinking.

Calvin: Or suppose everything matters. Which would be worse?? -B. Watterson (July 30, 1995)

As the child moves from the "earthbound" quality of concrete thinking to more "intergalactic," formal operational thinking, the young adolescent becomes capable of constructing contrary-to-fact hypotheses, of leaping "with the mind into untracked cognitive terrain, cognitive terra incognito, to travel in inner space, and out, to everywhere and anywhere, flying with the mind" (Dulit, 1972, p. 28). Herein lies the source of the adolescent's growing ability and fervor for challenging others' ideas, beliefs, and values and for engaging in furious debate, often to the dismay of parents, teachers, and other adults.

Accompanying the transition from concrete thinking to the more abstract world of formal operations is the growing capacity for cognitive flexibility. Reasoned arguments gradually replace simple reliance on authoritative pronouncements by grown-ups. Opposites such as good and bad, or black and white, or yes and no can be held in one's mind simultaneously, enabling the individual to examine the subtle shadings of disparate ideas and to tolerate the ambiguities that are generated by thoughtful debate. This "quantum leap" in thinking enables the child to consider many viewpoints at once, use inductive and deductive thinking to reason, and test reality by challenging contradictions and inconsistencies. Young adolescents can begin to argue for argument's sake-for the fun of it. And all of this enables youth to become future oriented by expanding their grasp of what is real and what is possible-"what 'could be' and not merely what 'is' or 'was'" (Dulit, 1972, p. 284).

Piaget (1950) believed that formal operations are initiated through cooperation with others. It is not enough to accept the imposed truths of others, no matter how rational in content. To learn to reason logically, one needs to engage in relationships that allow for an exchange and coordination of viewpoints. Group work and the dialectical processes it promotes to advance mutual aid provide an ideal context for accommodating and fostering this quantum leap in cognitive development during adolescence.

Building Bridges across the Generations

It is no surprise that there are grown-ups who are reticent about becoming involved with adolescents. However, if adults can avoid becoming defensive or intimidated and can adopt a selective "devil's-advocate-may-care" attitude, they might be pleased to discover that from the same source of cognitive combativeness and intellectual intransigence spring seeds of inspiration and idealism. Adolescents enjoy a good "fight" with adults who don't feel a need to dominate or win and who are willing to really listen.

Anna Freud (1985) provided the quintessential description of the puzzling contradictions and paradoxes inherent in adolescence:

Adolescents are excessively egoistic, regarding themselves as the center of the universe and the sole object of interest, and yet at no time in later life are they capable of so much self-sacrifice and devotion.... On the one hand, they throw themselves enthusiastically into the life of the community, and on the other, they have an overpowering longing for solitude. They oscillate between blind submission to some self-chosen leader and defiant rebellion against any and every authority. They are selfish and materially minded and at the same time full of lofty idealism.... At times their behavior to other people is rough and inconsiderate, yet they themselves are extremely touchy. Their moods veer between light-hearted optimism and the blackest pessimism. Sometimes they will work with indefatigable enthusiasm and at other times they are sluggish and apathetic. (p. 138)

Blos (1979) emphasizes that "the formation of a conflict between generations and its subsequent resolution is a normative task of adolescence" (p. 11). Coupled with access to an endless flow of technologically generated information and images, the cognitive leap of adolescence leads many a young person to believe that he or she can know more than his or her parents and to realize that some adults are not very bright (Schave & Schave, 1989). Taken to the extreme, such "cognitive conceit" can be very unsettling to the adults in their lives, particularly when expressed with a more sophisticated arsenal of thoughts and ideas. As Aristotle (1927) pointed out, in a reflection on adolescence, "They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.... They are fond of fun and therefore witty, wit being well-bred insolence" (pp. 323-325).

An interesting brew of revolt and conformity during this phase paints many unsuspecting parents with a broad brush, as if they represent some monolithic adult value system. During the protest-laden 1960s, there was the familiar refrain by young people: "You can't trust anyone over 30."


Excerpted from Group Work with Adolescents by Andrew Malekoff Copyright © 2004 by The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. The Adolescent in Context
1. Adolescent Development, Risk, and Opportunity
2. Between Adolescent and Group Worker: Uncertainty, Fluidity, and Learning from the Inside Out
II. Guidelines for Group Building
3. Strengths-Based Group Work with Adolescents
4. Planning in Group Work: Where We Begin
5. Good Beginnings in Group Work: Socializing Adolescents into the Group Culture
6. What’s Going On in There?: Alliance Formation with Parents Whose Adolescent Children Join Groups
7. Groups on the Go: Spontaneously Formed School-Based Mutual Aid Groups for Adolescents in Distress
8. The Use of Problem Solving in Group Work
9. The Use of “Program” in Group Work: Cultivating a Sense of Competence, Belonging, and Creativity
10. Leavetaking, Moving On, and Looking Back: The Ending Transition in Group Work
III. Contemporary and Age-Old Themes in Group Work: Guidelines, Applications, and Practice Illustrations
11. Prejudice Reduction, Intergroup Relations, and Group Identity: Spontaneous and Planned Interventions to Address Diversity in Group Work
12. Violence and Youth I: Dimensions and Interventions in Group Work
13. Violence and Youth II: When World Stage and Group Work Intersect
14. Adolescent Sexuality and Group Work: Variations on a Theme
15. Group Work as a Counterforce to Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse
16. Loneliness, Social Isolation, Scapegoating, and Group Work: The Adolescent’s Struggle to Fit In
IV. Special Challenges for Group Workers
17. On Becoming a Reflective Group Worker


Social workers and other professionals working with adolescents, including clinical and school psychologists, counselors, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and educators. Serves as a text in undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in social work practice with adolescents, group work, and adolescent psychotherapy.

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