In one particular boys group there were two troubled teens that couldn’t have been more opposite. One boy, whom I will call Brad, was extremely popular, tall, handsome, intelligent and had an amazing amount of influence with the rest of the group. He came to wilderness therapy because of fairly serious drug abuse, narcissistic traits, and oppositional defiance. Brad was also the most socially intuitive teen I had ever met. He was a genius when it came to social awareness. He knew EXACTLY how to read someone’s body language and how to respond in a way that got them to act how he wanted them to. In other words, he was a master at manipulation.
On the other hand the other boy, whom I will call Steve, was short, unpopular and below average intelligence. He was the type of kid that would become the target of bullying wherever he went because he didn’t see the social norms that he continued to break. Steve came to wilderness treatment for depression, anxiety, and attachment issues related to his adoption. Steve not only broke social norms, he crushed them into little pieces. It was both painful and sad to watch him ruin his social interactions with his peers.
The combination of these two kids in the same group was either a recipe for disaster or a wonderful opportunity. So, it was decided that a strategic game of therapeutic chess was in order. One day, during individual therapy, Brad was addressing his pattern of manipulation and his lack of empathy. He was then asked to talk more about his incredible ability to read social cues. His narcissistic personality took over as he described in great detail how he could walk into a room and read the social situation so clearly that by the end of the night he was completely in charge. As unbelievable as his description was, that is almost exactly what happened when he arrived in his group of troubled teens in the wilderness. Seeing that Brad took pride in his social acuity I asked him, “Do you think you’re good enough to teach others to be “cool” without it hurting your reputation?” He scoffed at my question and began telling story after story of his successful conquests of making other kids popular. With the therapeutic trap carefully laid before him, I asked, “So, do you think you could make Steve cool?” In spite of his incredible processing speed, a moment of hesitation flashed over his face before he answered, “Yep, I could” with unconvincing confidence. He knew where I was going and didn’t want to go there. He knew his therapeutic path had just taken a hard and unexpected turn, but because he had just spent so much time convincing himself and me that his social prowess could “make anyone cool”, he knew he could not back down from the challenge. So, we established a game plan on how Brad could mentor Steve into becoming “cool”. Of course the goal was never about Steve becoming cool. The therapeutic goal for Steve was to provide a respected peer mentor that would invite him in while simultaneously learning about social norms and how to avoid being bullied. The therapeutic goals for Brad were to teach empathy he needed to learn by getting him to engage in helping another person and hopefully he could start to see Steve through empathic eyes. Because Brad had a strong history of using his influence over people in a selfish and negative way, I prodded him to see how this act could be some degree of personal restitution. As we spoke, his facial expression changed from dread to anticipation. He verbalized that while he didn’t like Steve, he could see that it was good to help someone learn how to avoid being bullied in future settings.
The intervention began by having Brad spend a week observing Steve and compiling, in his words, a “cool manual”. This manual contained the common social mistakes that Steve made and the “cool” alternatives. The next week I removed Steve and Brad from the group and had them spend an entire week together in their own group with just a few staff so they would need to rely upon each other and work together more often. During this week Brad reviewed the “cool manual” with Steve and they processed several scenarios together. Brad was learning to gain empathy for Steve and his situation while Steve had an emotionally safe environment to discuss his common social blunders and concerns. After their week together they were reunited with the rest of their group and the real test began. This is where both Steve and Brad had to apply the things they had learned over the past week. Steve now worked hard to observe common social norms and to follow them more closely. He told fewer outlandish stories in an attempt to gain others approval and contributed more to group chores. At the same time, Brad was faced with supporting Steve’s efforts in a positive manner without mockery. He found himself standing up for Steve when the rest of the group made subtle negative comments, something he would have never done before. The rest of the group was in shock and didn’t know how to respond at first. Their paradigm did not include a world in which Steve was one of the “cool kids”, and the coolest kid they knew treating Steve like he was. After a while, they eventually followed Brad’s lead and began supporting Steve rather than ridiculing him. Though this was not the end of their struggles, it certainly set the stage for both Brad and Steve to help each other overcome some of their most entrenched patterns.