Learning the Secret Handshake

By Bob Axelrod, LCSW

When you listen to your kids talk about school and their friends, does it sometimes feel like they are part of a secret society that we, as parents, cannot understand? Have you watched a group of middle schoolers interact with each other? There are so many unspoken rules of communication between them. There is face to face interaction, online exchanges, ways to behave in groups of just boys, groups of just girls and of course when boys and girls are together. For a “typical” child, these different scenarios are hard to manage. For quirky teens-ones who may lack fundamental social skills, it is easy to imagine how they quickly become outsiders in their own peer group.

So the question becomes, how can a child learn these elusive rules? The answer is actually the same as it would be if he were learning to play soccer, earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, or mastering a new language. It takes enormous effort and practice. For teens with little social acumen, effort and practice are just as important. As a therapist for over 30 years, I have seen this in action. I have watched these kids work at making friends, having conversations and reading social cues from others.

The “others” in the case of In Step are the group members who meet weekly for a structured one hour session. Our theory is that behavioral change is difficult and requires using a unique part of the brain. As leaders, we stretch our group members’ brains and encourage new abilities each week. Repetition begets skill and confidence. Each week we ask the kids to come in with a “Something I Know”. What we discovered when first doing middle school groups was that they were often talking in the lobby about fairly esoteric things, like the size of the biggest box turtle in the southern part of Uganda or the length of time it takes to digest one cupcake if it’s vanilla rather than chocolate. There was always one child who had done the research and could offer the undisputed answer. With the “Something I Know” exercise, each group member gets a chance to shine. He has a minute or so to say something he knows, often culled from his school learning or from the Discovery Channel.

We then move on to T.W.I.R.L. (The Week in Review List). Group members discuss a positive event and a challenging one that was experienced during the days between group sessions. Because we ask them to relate the events to social situations and the resulting feelings, this activity can be a difficult one for our quirky teens. It can take several minutes for them to make the connection between what they do on a daily basis and how it makes them feel or how it has impacted them interpersonally. We work with them on bridging feelings they have and recognizing them as a social interaction. We continue with role-playing exercises, games that get them thinking about subjective behavior (like Scruples, for example) and then we review and wrap up. The review is important to allow the kids to express in their own words what the lessons meant for each of them. It is also another opportunity to reinforce the social concepts for the entire group.

So let’s talk again about those children who are playing soccer. They are generally part of a team of kids who are also learning and trying to get better. They work together to accomplish a goal. Practicing alone for a team activity will only get you so far. Then you have to put your skills into action with the rest of the team to try and create a synergy that helps you win. For the teens that come to us for our groups, the goal is increased self-confidence and the ability to feel comfortable and accepted by their peers. It begins with fellow group members and then those skills are applied to other groups; school, scouts, church and even the other members of their family. As a therapist, I feel so fortunate to see these teens grow socially and emotionally as they share stories in group of what is working for them. I am witness to their increased self-assurance. And that is the ultimate goal.