Group interventions harmful for delinquent teens

An analysis of hundreds of studies reveals that approximately 29 percent of teen interventions produce negative effects. Researchers Thomas J. Dishion and Francois Poulin, University of Oregon and Joan McCord, Temple University, spent five years studying group counseling and other guided group interactions to determine if working with teens in peer groups reinforced delinquent and antisocial behavior.

Long-term studies have shown that association with deviant peers in early adolescence is closely associated with increases in problem behavior. These researchers studied the subtle but powerful influence of deviant friendships. Even in group counseling, there seems to be a process by which young adolescents are encouraged in deviance by older teens.

Talking about delinquent behavior is the way high-risk youth form friendships. These researchers found that they were able to predict long-term increases in problem behavior on the basis of 25 minutes of videotaped interactions in peer group intervention programs. Adolescent friendships based on deviance provide a context in which problem behavior escalates from adolescence through adulthood. This finding has serious implications for group intervention with high-risk youth.

Can this powerful peer influence be harnessed in a positive direction, or should adults avoid group interventions when working with troubled teens? The Adolescent Training Program carried out a few years ago, was a short-term intervention with both parent- and peer-training components. Parents were trained in techniques for reducing problem behavior and increasing prosocial behavior. The teen training sessions encouraged involvement with family, self-regulation of behavior, and prosocial goals.

Both the teen and parent programs were delivered in group interventions over a 12-week period. One hundred and nineteen high-risk teens were assigned to one of four groups: teen intervention only, parent intervention only, teen and parent intervention or no intervention. The short-term effects looked positive. Both interventions appeared to help reduce family tension and conflict. However, longer-term follow-up revealed that negative effects were associated with the teen intervention groups.

Teachers, who were unaware of which experimental group students belonged to, reported significantly more acting-out behavior in students involved in the teen groups. Participation in teen groups also led to higher rates of tobacco use. Parent training did not counteract the powerful negative effects of teen-groups. Assessments three years later indicated that the negative effects of teen groups persisted. Although the teen groups were closely supervised to prevent direct encouragement of problem behavior, close study of videotaped sessions suggests that it was older, more deviant youth who dominated group meetings.

Another carefully designed study illustrating negative treatment effects is the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study (CSYS) carried out many years ago near Boston. This was a long-term intervention for at-risk boys from age 10 to 16. Researchers studied the adult outcomes of the program 15 years after the intervention. The CSYS employed a comprehensive approach to crime prevention based on an underlying assumption that high-risk children often lacked affectionate guidance. This program provided comprehensive help to boys and their families, beginning before boys became involved in delinquent or criminal activity.

Researchers randomly assigned both normal and difficult boys to treatment and control groups. They used a matched-pair design so comparisons could be made between similar children, one of whom received intervention while the other did not.

Care was taken to assure that every pair of boys was equivalent on all known correlates of delinquent behavior. The matching variables included intelligence, age, source of referral, neighborhood crime ratings, home stability, quality of parental discipline, family histories of crime and alcoholism, the boys’ aggression and acceptance of authority. Treatment varied, but most of the boys received academic tutoring, medical treatment and general mentoring. Counselors serving as mentors met with boys an average of twice a month. They encouraged participation in local community groups, took boys to sporting events, taught them how to drive, helped them get jobs and helped their family members with employment, babysitting, counseling and transportation.

An evaluation shortly before the study ended failed to show any differences between treated and untreated boys. Some researchers suggested that the effects would show up as the boys matured. The follow-up study done 15 years later, checked vital statistics, and records from courts, mental hospitals and alcohol treatment centers to objectively evaluate the program. Results revealed that the treatment program appeared to have long-term negative effects on boys’ lives.

In 15% of the cases, the treated boy in a pair did better than the untreated boy, but in a majority of cases there was no difference in outcome. In one-fourth of all the cases, however, the treated boy had a more negative outcome. In addition, boys who received the most attention over the longest period of time were the most likely to have negative effects.

Even when comparisons were restricted to those with whom a counselor had particularly good rapport, or those that the staff felt they had helped the most, there was still no evidence of benefit. Besides mentoring, the only factor common to all boys with negative outcomes was that they spent more summers at camp.

Living in peer groups at camp seems to have contributed to negative outcomes, despite the fact that the camps to which these boys were sent were scattered over several states and were not dominated by high-risk youth.

Peers Contribute to Increases in Delinquent Behavior

These two carefully designed studies indicate that under some circumstances, grouping at-risk youth with their peers during early adolescence can produce both short- and long-term negative effects. Researchers suggest that in any group, vulnerable children may seek peers with similar backgrounds or problems.

Peer treatment groups for at-risk kids provide intense exposure to deviant behavior that is reinforced by the groups’ attention. The reinforcement processes within peer groups can be quite subtle as well as powerful. In videotaped intervention groups, peers provide reinforcement at a rate of 9-to-1 compared to adult staff.

This reinforcement is so high that it seriously undermines adult guidance. Skillful group leadership did not appear to provide a corrective influence. On the basis of this analysis, researchers conclude that there is reason to be cautious and to avoid putting young high-risk adolescents into group interventions.


While group counseling that creates bonds among low-achieving high school students appears to lead to further alienation, an exception may be group interventions for depressed youth. Studies of depressed adolescents working together have shown positive effects and statistically reliable reductions in depression.

There are also examples of successful elementary group interventions that reduce aggressive behavior. The age of the children appears to be key. Grouping children in prosocial interventions in early and middle childhood can be an effective strategy.

When Interventions Harm” American Psychologist, Volume 54, Number 9, September 1999, pp. 755-764.

Published in ERN November 1999 Volume 12 Number 8

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