Not Another Role Play!

Liana Pena Morgens, Ph.D.

Getting a teen to join a social/pragmatic skills group is challenging, although it should be the next step after becoming aware of and accepting social difficulties. Many teens who struggle with social pragmatics have already spent a lifetime of feeling different. This is especially true of the bright adolescents who are very aware of others and how they themselves fit in or fail to fit into their social sphere.

Let us assume that your teen is in a place where he or she wants some help developing the skills to navigate their social world. What now? Finding a program that does not make the teen feel even more different can be a challenge. Teens as a whole are a tough audience, and as their identities are forming, finding activities that will appeal to a them is tough.

The most important ingredient to having a successful teen group is having a leader or leaders who talk to them as if they are young adults. Teens also need to have some say, within certain limits, in what their group is doing. In general, teens like to talk, be heard, be accepted, be respected, and have fun. Not every moment has to be a skill-focused! In fact, focusing too much on the skill of the day is likely to turn off most teens. The group therapy session offered in my practice generally consist of three parts.

The first part is left to our teens to decide, which is a “sure fire” way of ensuring they like what they are doing. Our job as the leaders is to be quiet participants and learn about our group members and their dynamics through observation.

In the second part of our session, we usually have an agenda item that we either present “as is” or we may use an example from group as a segue to discussing the topic. In the former, we may say, “Here’s a topic, what do you guys think about it, and how can a discussion of it be useful?” Again, we empower them to know something about the topic. In the latter, we may say, “Oh, the other day Jane Doe mentioned something about peer pressure at school, how is that going?” And then we, as group leaders, share certain points about the topic while fostering a useful discussion.

Finally, we do something fun: Drama and Improvisation Acting. Since practicing social skills can feel quite infantilizing to teens, the common practice of role-playing situations has often been replaced with drama and improvisational acting. We have found that many teens love drama. Among those who do not, many enjoy improvisation or that “cool” show “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” Generally well received, improvisation and drama games are powerful tools that teach many skills such as nonverbal language, emotion development, theory of mind, team work, confidence, reading other’s cues, and conversation. Some groups enjoy filming a movie over the course of the year, while others like to play drama games. Again, this is their choice, not ours.

During this process, our job as leaders is to help the teens negotiate for their roles and lines, develop their characters, figure out what information is vital for a scene to work from the perspective of other characters and the audience (theory of mind), and work on relaying a message with the appropriate body language, tone of voice, etc. It is so much safer getting direction as an actor, than receiving direction on your own personal social skills! The teens usually love it, and it is amazing to see their pride and confidence over a drama work they created. Even more magical are their reactions when they see themselves on replays. We often hear things like, “Wow, I didn’t know I sounded that way!” or “Hey, what was I looking at up there?” Not only does the individual finally see him or herself as others may, he or she is now starting to attempt to figure that out without having to see it on the monitor (more theory of mind).

One final piece of advice for making a group palatable for teens: feed them! Growing teens lead busy lives, shuffling from one activity to another, and it is very relaxing to come somewhere to share a snack with your group mates!

Liana Peña Morgens, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist. Besides her own private practice in Waltham, MA, the Morgens Group, LLC, she is an instructor in the Psychology Training Program at McLean Hospital and an Instructor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School. In the summer, the Morgens Group offers the Drama-Play Connection, Inc. at Regis College in Weston, MA. You may contact Dr. Morgens at 781-899-1160 or about social skills groups, summer programs, and evaluations (including evaluations done in Spanish).