Apr 23, 2008, 15:44

By M. Jerome Ennis, MEd

For many years, I've worked in programs with the aim of helping individuals learn and become more emotionally sound and mature. Emotional growth or lack thereof is at the core of most problems leading to dysfunctional lives, which may or may not include alcohol or other drug use and abuse. All too often, these lives are interrupted at an early age and emotional growth not only does not continue but also becomes stifled at the age the individual begins to spin out of control.

For example, a 13-year-old who is lagging emotionally may lack self-confidence, becomes easily led by negative peers, begins to drink alcohol or use other drugs or engage in other risky or unhealthy behaviors. Initially, this 13-year-old with outward behaviors of shyness, quietness and somewhat withdrawn comes to life when introduced to a couple of beers with his friends. He may become the life of the party, thinking, "Wow, this is great, I am not shy any more, I can talk to girls/boys, I can dance and I am liked by my friends." The next day, when the effects of the alcohol are gone, he or she returns to the shy, quiet and withdrawn person and may even be a little more depressed than usual. The next time there is an opportunity to drink, they do, and WA-LA, "I am again the life of the party." This is the makings of an alcoholic or addict.

When a mind-altering substance is introduced, giving a false sense of security or happiness, the tendency is to continue to use with the addiction becoming full blown. As with all things that seem too good to be true, it is especially true for alcohol or other drugs. The drug turns on you, making you a slave. Not only do you feel on top of the world, but worthless and powerless. You begin to believe you cannot survive without it. The only time you can deal with life at any level is when you use. Everything else ceases to matter. This applies to alcohol or other drugs and also other destructive behaviors or escapism.

I've worked both ends of this spectrum. At the early stage, the youth were already in trouble in many areas of their lives-legal, drug or alcohol problems or relationship problems with parents, peers, teachers and others. Boys especially had academic problems, believing they lacked intelligence to learn, leading to more behavior problems. At the other end of the spectrum, I worked with adults at all stages of adulthood, from 20 to over 70, with alcohol, drug, sex or gambling addictions, other destructive behaviors and generally identified as having mental health issues.

A commonality at both ends of the spectrum was an inability to deal with life on its terms and stresses. The sense of powerlessness and seeming inability to deal with life's stress led to escapism. The use of alcohol or other drugs made them seem confident, enabling them to continue functioning enough to get along from day to day for some time. However, their emotional growth had stopped. They were not gaining skills and abilities to deal with life on its terms. At home, even when the family situation was not ideal, they at least didn't have the stressors of rent, house payments, car payments, jobs, etc. Going out on their own without emotional maturity to deal with life's stressors such as paying bills, working and being independent as "adults," the alcohol or other drug use or other destructive behaviors worsened, preventing further emotional growth.

The ideal place to stop this dysfunctional cycle is at the early stage of onset. I am grateful that programs run by people who understand the need for emotional growth and experiential education exist. There are many good programs. Lon Woodbury and others do a great job of keeping folks informed about them and in the promotion of them, as well as in the problems that arise from time to time.

In all programs, the people implementing and facilitating the program and its participants make it effective. The best program model in the world is only as good as the people running the program. People who design great models for emotional growth and experiential learning programs know and understand basic needs, and have carefully selected their counselors, teachers and other staff.

In a wilderness program, for example, it is crucial that all members of the team: cooks, secretaries, social workers, counselors, teachers, the director, maintenance personnel, etc. share the same philosophy and are consistent in implementing the program, upholding the same rules, standards and guidelines at all times. Staff differences should be ironed out privately to avoid undermining anyone, either intentionally or inadvertently. Any staff resistant to following the program model should be replaced or the program will not be as effective as it could be in allowing the emotional growth to take place in the participants to enable them to get on with their lives when leaving the program. They need to leave dysfunction behind to make healthy, informed decisions in the future.

Troubled teens are troubled due to emotional immaturity and a sense of powerlessness with too many inconsistencies in their lives. Consistency and fairness are essential for any program to be effective. It is crucial that all staff share the same goals and philosophy. Does this mean they are like robots? Of course not, some like pizza, some do not, but all must be on the same page of the program's model or philosophy or the inconsistencies will affect the program negatively.

Next, all personnel must be competent to handle all situations appropriately, safely and in a therapeutically sound manner. The ability and insights to recognize potentially hazardous or dangerous situations beforehand allows you to take necessary steps to insure unsafe situations do not occur. Heading off problems and crises before they occur is a critical factor. Too often people get commended for ending a riot, as opposed to being reprimanded for allowing it to occur. If staff members are on top of things, they will be able to head off the riot before it occurs and resolve the tension that led to the problem, thus causing the situation to become a positive learning experience and allowing emotional growth to take place--which is what the program is designed to do.

If conflicts and problems are not arising, no growth is taking place. The stressors of living in the wilderness are intended to cause disequilibrium in the participants and bring out the negative attitudes and behaviors that brought them here, opening the door for growth to take place. Participants learn to resolve conflicts effectively, growing emotionally. However, you do not want instability created because some staff member(s) are inconsistent in following the program's standards, directly or indirectly undermining the positive efforts of others.

Great programs are those whose mission and goals are shared by all. I imagine that in most cases, program directors or other leaders already know this and have put together a lot of great programs made up of great folks. Remember, a great program is made up of great people sharing a common goal. Hopefully all are emotionally mature, not engaged in competing egos and philosophies that tend to forget the school or program's goals and mission: The emotional growth of the students with whom they work.

Good Luck and Happy Trails.

About the Author: M. Jerome Ennis, MEd, Tuscaloosa, AL, 205-523-1967,, holds a BS in Education from Auburn University and a Masters in Special Education/Behavior Disorders from the University of North Georgia. He has worked as a counselor, Education Director and Headmaster of a private wilderness program, and taught several years in public schools, dealing with students classified as having emotional and behavioral problems. He currently works as an Addiction Therapist for the Veteran's Administration and has a Master's level Addiction Therapist Certification. He is the author of various essays dealing with educational issues.

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