Chapter 6: Youth Growth Groups — Identity Formation

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 6: Youth Growth Groups — Identity Formation

"It's so exciting! Sensitivity breaks down barriers and you feel emotions unknown by most to even exist. There is such humanness and love in it . . . Sensitivity breaks down all walls. There is no feeling of color, age, or sex. We enter the experience black and white, and young and old, and leave as one human, loving body. I wish more people could be 'turned on' to sensitivity. I've found myself happier since I discovered this type of warmth and love. I can get really high on nature, books, music, and most of all -- people. It's beautiful"

Comments of a high school girl1

These words of a high school senior describe her experiences in a growth group led by her pastor. They illustrate, with refreshing enthusiasm, the power of the people dynamic to awaken youth to the richness of existence. No age group is more concerned than youth about finding and fulfilling themselves. No age segment of a community can use growth groups more productively.

Adolescence is a time of coming alive -- to oneself, to peers, to the wider world of nature and spirit. It's an exciting, confusing, and lonely period for many, especially in these chaotic times. But in all kinds of circumstances, the inward flowering of sexuality occurs. It happened, and beautifully, to a girl, age fourteen, hiding with her family in an Amsterdam loft from the tyranny of a hate state:

The sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I'm longing -- so longing -- for everything . . . I believe that it's spring within me, I feel that spring is awakening, I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally . . . I only know that I am longing.2

The search for vivid experiencing -- for turning on through rock music, mysticism, drugs, sex, freer relationships with people -- is a powerful drive in youth. Because growth groups are an effective method of turning on to people, they have a special attraction and usefulness for youth.

Every community, through its churches, schools, community agencies, and youth organizations (the "Y" and others) should provide a smorgasbord of growth opportunities for youth. Few if any investments of group leadership can pay more lasting dividends -- nurturing the family builders of the future and, through them, increasing the wholeness of tomorrow's children.

Groups and the Growth of Youth

It is illuminating, both for group leaders and members, to understand how growth groups can meet the particular needs of youth. Here are some of the ways:

Growth groups can help youth achieve a firm, functional identity. Identity formation -- "the process of coming to terms with what it means to be a person in one's own right"3 -- is the task facing every adolescent. At the end of a group, one girl said: "I know me better now and it feels good."

Groups help youth develop new relationship skills within a lifestyle of interdependence. In groups, high school and college youth "try on for size" better ways of communicating and relating. Bill, a sensitive sixteen-year-old, learned, midway through a sharing group, that his parents were divorcing. Reeling from the blow, he haltingly told the group that his first thought was, "I won't tell the group . . . too much, man . . . they don't need to know." Then, the realization hit him, "Hell, if I ever needed a place where I could spill my guts, this is it." Responding with warmth and concern, the group helped Bill release his hurt, angry feelings, then helped him sort out the pieces -- what he could and couldn't do something about.

There is an epidemic of disillusionment, loneliness, and despair among youth.4 Learning to turn toward people, rather than away, when the roof caves in, is part of the answer. Knowing how to use and enjoy a mutual support group is a lifelong asset in a society of massive loneliness.

Growth groups can help youth increase their feelings of selfworth. Behind the know-it-all assertiveness of some youth ( which threatens and galls adults ) and the shy withdrawal of others, the same gnawing feeling usually lurks: "I'm not sure who I am or how to handle these powerful inner urges or whether I can make it in the mixed-up, demanding world of adulthood." What am I worth? is a central question in youth's identity search. Growth groups let youth experience an affirming community. The group enhances self-esteem by caring enough to really listen, to comfort and to confront. It helps increase self-acceptance by reducing the burden of guilt which many youth carry. It does this by creating a climate of acceptance -- of feelings and impulses (around which irrational guilt often forms ) -- and by confronting the young person with the need to change irresponsible, self-other hurting behavior (the source of appropriate guilt).

Growth groups can help youth learn how to keep their Adult sides in the driver's seat. A growth group can help persons at any age avoid letting the inner Child take over at inappropriate times ( often a crucial issue for adolescents ).

Ralph: (age 15) "Man, I'm going to be an ecology lawyer -- give it to these damn polluters!"

Pete: (age 17) "Good show! But how does that fit with the goofin' off in school bit?"

Without knowing it, Pete is practicing reality therapy. He's asking Ralph's inner Adult, "Does what you're doing now lead to where you want to be?" Ralph's Adult may decide to take over control from his Child and try to pass the courses because this will move him toward his goal.

Groups can help youth prize their own sexuality and affirm that of others. Sexuality -- maleness and femaleness -- is big and important to nearly everyone. It's particularly powerful and pervasive in the consciousness of youth. Much of the moodiness, despondency, and inferiority feelings of even well-adjusted teens are linked to anxiety and guilt about sexual fantasies, impulses, behavior, and "will-I-be-attractive-enough-to-the-other-sex" worries. If the leader is affirmative of his or her own sexuality, a group can provide the first opportunity most youth have had to resolve hangups in this area.

Prizing oneself as a whole person necessarily includes discovering and liking oneself as a sexual being. Many youth are searching for their sexual identity, which is difficult when sex roles are changing so rapidly. They're struggling to connect sex to things like self-esteem and caring relationships, a difficult assignment in our fouled-up, sex-saturated society. Growth groups can help, The ability to celebrate one's sexuality and enjoy one's sexual powers in pro-people ways increases through completion of the growth tasks of each stage from infancy through adulthood. Groups can help youth work through their feelings and attitudes toward sex. When sex is best (most satisfying and pleasurable) it's in a relationship of mutual esteem, responsibility, and caring.

Groups can be a launching pad toward adulthood. To enter adulthood, youth must free themselves from inner dependency ties to parents. To do this, young people need supportive relationships -- far enough removed from the source of their childhood attitudes commitments, and values -- to evaluate these and help them decide which they can honestly incorporate into their developing adult identity. Youth growth groups can provide such relationships, which become a launching pad for making it into adult orbit. Through the "new family" of the peer group, inner freedom and identity can develop.

Groups provide opportunities for new relationships with adults. If the adult leader is nonjudgmental, caring, and a listener, most youth will communicate openly about what matters to them. To communicate with a trusted nonparent adult, during the period of necessary separation from parents, is affirming to youth in their identity quest. In the family I know best, a creative, open minister was this kind of meaningful adult friend to its teen-age members. Through gangs, cliques, clubs, and steady couple relationships, youth create their own "new families" in which growth occurs. Formal groups supplement these in important ways, including the opportunities for new relationships with adults.

Groups can help youth develop a philosophy that works for them. Functional values and commitments are essential to identity formation. Many youth are searching for ways to make their lives count in our value-conflicted world. The late Abraham Maslow, a growth-oriented psychologist, declared:

Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin.... They are devoted, working at something which is very precious to them -- some calling or vocation in the old, priestly sense . . . which they love, so that the work-joy dichotomy in them disappears.... All, in one way or another, devote lives to the search for what I have called the 'being values,' the ultimate values which . . . cannot be reduced to anything more ultimate . . . including the truth and beauty and goodness of the ancients.5

Millions of youth have rejected as inadequate the values of their parents like money and "getting ahead"; they're searching for "being" values. Witness their efforts to apply the love ethic and to save the planet for people. Most youthful cynics are still hoping there may be a way to save mankind from self-pollution and self-destruction.

Growth groups can enable youth to connect with vertical reality. Most youth hunger for what Maslow called "peak experiences." Drugs have allure partly because they offer instant transcendence. The high school girl quoted at the opening of this chapter compared her experiences with marijuana and a growth-in-sensitivity group:

"Sensitivity is not only as good as marijuana because you can experience fulfillment of emotions, but it is far better. It is not against the law and it has a more lasting effect . . . when it is over and you 'come down' from your sensitivity experience, you have the feeling with you for a long time, whereas with marijuana, when you 'come down' it is depressing."

A vital function of growth groups for all ages is to help people break out of "the heavies" and experience 'little moments of ecstasy" -- in playfulness, joy, celebration, worship, deep sharing, mystery, and pain. These precious moments can't be manufactured; they happen spontaneously in effective groups. The moment of growth, when the group witnesses an awakening, is such a peak. Religious symbols may be the most appropriate response ( though not necessarily). A church youth group embraced as a group and broke into a rousing folk hymn. Another youth group let out a roof-raising cheer of sheer joy. Peak experiences are much more than emotional "trips." They're moments of standing on holy ground, when the group is one with each other and with Life. They are an essential dimension and source of empowering for growth. They are moments of connecting with the Source.

Varieties of Youth Growth Groups

Here are a few of the many types of youth growth groups which have been effective:

Self-discovery group: A counseling minister drew two small groups from his youth fellowships. Some joined as a result of an open invitation. Others -- known by the minister to have growth problems -- received individual invitations. They met weekly, after school, through the school year. The approach was unstructured, interaction moving wherever the needs and interests of the youth took it.

Quest-for-meaning groups: A west coast college set up small groups for all of its first year students, drawing on insights from our cultural heritage and using growth methods.

Youth-adult conversations: During the "nurture hour" on Sunday morning, a California church held a series of discussions involving some twenty youth and adults, co-led by a youth and an adult. The goal: "communication across the generation gap."

Youth retreats: A town in Arizona held an ecumenical youth retreat to "build bridges and deepen relationships." An intensive growth week or weekend on the trail, in a workcamp, or in an isolated spot can stimulate relating and reflection on life issues, and remotivate a dragging youth group.

Growth-oriented confirmation class: Departing from the usual didactic pattern, a church built its preparation-for-membership class around basic issues such as "Who am I?", "Who can I trust?", "Who is my brother?", "What is love?", "Who is God?", "What and where is the church?" Finger-painting, role-playing, trust and communication exercises were used to make the issues experiential. One of the sessions was a mini-marathon. None of the youth dropped out; all seemed "interested and committed." The leader reports that it was the most meaningful confirmation group in her experience.6

Action-reflection groups: Groups have proved to be invaluable during and after social action happenings -- peace demonstrations, urban plunges, boycotts of economic exploiters, political campaigning -- stimulating understanding of action skills and principles and new self-awareness. The experiences involved in community action should be used fully as personal growth opportunities.

The "Structured Growth Group":7 The use of structure is sound in all youth growth experiences, but especially with junior highs. (With them frequent activity interspersed with brief times of verbal sharing seems to work best.) Role playing offers an excellent method of facilitating work on relationships in youth growth experiences. One high school group began a session by having each person finger-paint how he felt about life. The powerful feelings of conflict, loneliness, guilt, hope, passion, rage that came out "in living color," as one youth commented, opened the doors to honest, open sharing.

There are many other types of youth growth experiences which have proved to be productive. Bridging groups (cross-generational, interfaith, and intercultural) are important in our polarized society. To design groups that fit needs in your situation, convene a creative rap session of youth plus two open adults. In youth growth groups and particularly transgenerational groups, it is best to have a youth and an adult as co-leaders.

Preparation for Marriage Groups

Every year the dreams of happiness of millions of couples end in nightmares. Premarital growth groups can prevent many of these painful tragedies by correcting their basic cause -- lack of skill in relating, communicating, and nurturing a love relationship.

A religious center near the campus of an Iowa junior college offers "premarital growth and development groups."8 The sign-up sheet announces that they are for "anyone thinking about getting married." The groups meet weekly, for six times (9:00 to 11:30 P.M. ), led by a campus minister and his wife ( married five years ). Chapters selected from The Intimate Marriage 9 are read by participants between sessions. Six couples have proved to be the optimal size. One recently married couple is included to stimulate discussion and share their experiences. Issues which come up frequently include "Not O.K. feelings," fighting, sex problems, hurting each other. A recurring comment among couples is -- "You do that, too?"

Most "premarital counseling" is too short and surface-level to change the interpersonal ineptness and emotional deafness that foredooms millions of marriages to failure. Premarital sessions (usually one to three), with a clergyman or other professional, are much more likely to become actual counseling -- i.e., go to the level of the couple's real needs -- if they follow an engaged couples growth group. Courses on preparation for marriage and family life in schools usually do not reach the heart-and-gut levels where relationships are made or broken unless they include small growth groups.

The structure and process of premarital growth groups is similar to marital groups: a blending of brief input of relevant ideas (short films, for example); skill practice by couples (e.g., conflict-resolution methods); awareness-communication exercises in the total group; and plenty of unstructured interaction after each structured activity. Home assignments encourage couples to practice communicating on growth issues outside the group. Male-female co-leaders are best. Leaders should see each couple alone sometime during the group. The emphasis throughout should be on each couple's developing their resources for building together the relationship they want. Six to eight weeks, plus a marathon or retreat is a feasible format. Couples who need additional growth or counseling experiences, before or after their weddings, should be helped to find these.

Churches have a major role to play in providing premarital groups, since clergymen perform millions of weddings each year. Groups should be scheduled and well-publicized at least three or four times a year. Interchurch groups are a possibility if individual churches do not have enough weddings to warrant even occasional groups. High schools, colleges, and community agencies should sponsor groups for both engaged and pre-engaged couples. High schools and churches must develop growth groups for fifteen to eighteen year olds, if the vast majority of youth are to be reached early enough to make a real difference. It is the intimate relationships that create or destroy human wholeness; therefore, providing a network of premarital growth groups is a high priority for our society. As every married person knows, to "be in love" is far from enough unless one also knows how to nurture that love so that it grows toward more satisfying, joyous intimacy.

Training to Lead Youth Groups

Beyond the training described earlier, the issue for us adults who want to be youth group facilitators is how we feel about youth. This is determined largely by our relationship with one particular teen-ager -- the one inside us. He's there, with our inner Child, whether we know him or not. If he's a stranger, he will distort our relationships with young people. He will cause us to fear them or "preach at" them. Keeping our Adult side ( and not our Parent side) turned on in the presence of hostile or anxious adolescents will be almost impossible. So, to improve your effectiveness with youth, join a youth-adult growth encounter group to help you become a better friend to your own inner youth. Or, perhaps this fantasy will help:

Close your eyes and imagine a movie screen in your mind. Flash on it the house you lived in as an adolescent. Now picture yourself coming home from school. See yourself as you looked then. How do you feel? Picture some incident with your parents . . . with your closest friend . . . alone (feeling what you felt, in each case). Picture the most painful experience you can recall from those years. Feel it . . . Recall the mess of feelings you had about sex . . . Make friends with the youth in your mind.... Chat with him ... tell him how you feel relating to him . . . If he's still hurting, comfort him. You need each other very much.

When I use this reconnecting fantasy, I meet a lonely, pimplyfaced lad at high school during lunch hour. He's wandering around alone because he's afraid to risk the rejection of his peers in the cafeteria. He's spending his lunch money at a corner grocery on milk and cake. The latter makes his pimples worse, but it's comfort of sorts for loneliness. Painful? Yes, but unless I keep connected with that lad and be a caring adult to him, his presence will foul up every effort to relate to youth. When I'm on good terms with him, this inner relationship is a bridge to other youth.

When you're in touch with your own youth of the past, encounters with youth and their culture become less threatening and more of a growth experience. It's important to listen to what they say and feel -- after they trust you. It's difficult, particularly when their feelings about adult hypocrisy "hits the fan." But, if you keep your Adult functioning you can gain new appreciation of the pain and the promise of youth.

The Growth Perspective Again

"How come adults look at us as problems?" a youth group member asked. For a variety of reasons, our society conditions us to view young people as problems -- a perception which they internalize in their self-image. Instead of thinking of themselves as having problems, which would simply make them a part of the human race, they tend to think of themselves as somehow being problems, which puts them in a special negatively important category. This fact underlines the importance of seeing young people through the growth perspective. If persons who matter see an individual affirmingly, in terms of his being and becoming, many of his problems diminish or even disappear. Few experiences do more to nurture self-esteem than encountering someone who sees us as valuable, both in who we are and in who we can become. Since what we can become is also what we deeply want to be, nothing is more likely to help us grow.


Additional Reading -- Youth Growth Groups

("L" = of interest primarily to group leaders.)

L Blees, Robert A., and Staff of First Community Church, Columbus, Ohio, Counseling with Teen-Agers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965. See "Creative Use of Growth Groups," pp. 29-52.

Ginott Haim, Between Parent and Teen Ager. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1969.

L Jackson, Edgar N., Group Counseling, Dynamic Possibilities of Small Groups. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969. "How Does the Group Method Work with Junior High Youth?" pp. 63-68. ". . . with Senior High Youth?" pp. 69-14.

L MacLennan, Beryce W., and Felsenfeld, Naomi, Group Counseling and Psychotherapy with Adolescents. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

L Ohlsen, Merle M., Group Counseling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1910. Chap. 10 "Counseling Adolescents in Groups."

Snyder, Ross, Young People and Their Culture. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969.



1. I am indebted to Ralph H. Earle for this statement. Used with permission.

2. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, translated from the Dutch by B. M. Mooyaart (New York: The Modern Library, 1952), p. 164.

3. Clarence A. Mahler, Group Counseling in the Schools (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1969), p. 25.

4. Teen suicides increased by 100 percent in Los Angeles County in 1968-69. Newsletter, American Assn. of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. XV, No. 8, June, 1971, p. 6.

5. Abraham H. Maslow, "Self-Actualization and Beyond," Challenge of Humanistic Psychology, pp. 280-281.

6. Letter from Annette L. Aguilu, April 20, 1971.

7. For a description, see Robert A. Blees, Counseling with Teen-Agers, pp. 44-52.

8. Personal communication, Steve Marsh, May 31, 1971. Also Dorothy R. Freeman, "Counseling Engaged Couples in Small Groups," Social Work, October, 1965, pp. 36-42.

9. Howard J. and Charlotte H. Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).