Nuances before Dinner: Exploring the Relationship between Peer Counselors and Delinquent Adolescents

Article excerpt

Peer counseling is an umbrella term for all kinds of peer-oriented programs including peer-education/facilitation, peer-academic advising, and various types of peer-intervention, for example, peer counseling and peer crisis intervention and peer advocacy. Researchers often examine these programs from the client's perspective or from the peer counselor's perspective.

Many studies have focused on what peer counselling does for the client. Problems of student adjustment have been examined (Brown, 1965; Vriend, 1969; Schweisheimer & Walberg, 1976; Downe, Altmann, & Nysetvold, 1986; Srebnijk & Elias, 1993), and there has been some therapeutic application of peer counseling for more severe adjustment problems (Riessman, 1965; Hilgard, Staight, & Moore, 1969; Hanegbi, Krasilowsky, & Feuerstein, 1970; Sugar, 1972; Fine, Knight-Webb, & Vernon, 1977; Huey & Rank, 1984).

Several studies have examined what the experience of peer counseling does for the peer counselor (Hahn & LeCapitaine, 1990; Puchkoff & Font-Padron, 1990; Silver, Coupey, Bouman, & Doctors, 1992). Most of the early research on peer counseling is framed by behavioral and social-learning principles, wherein modeling and vicarious learning are employed to explain the action of peer counseling. More recently, peer counselling has been viewed in terms of ecological or supportive intervention, psychological education, and as growth and development oriented (Srebnic & Elias, 1993; Carter & Janzen, 1994; Sprinthall, Hall, & Gerler, 1992; D'Andrea, V. J., 1987). This broadening scope acknowledges the complexities of the peer counseling experience. The conception of peer counseling has shifted from one in which individuals variously model and imitate prosocial behavior, to a more interpersonal, interactional perspective in which thoughts, feelings, and motivations may be considered. Such theoretical widening puts peer counseling in a relational context. It is now time to focus on what happens between client and peer counselor, to examine actual interchanges, and to consider each participant's involvement in the dyadic relationship.

To my knowledge, there has not been any study of the ways peer counselors and clients interact; that is, a study of the peer relationship. This paper details the peer counselor-client relationship as it occurs - in vivo - from the point of view of a participant observer. This unique and exciting relationship can be quite intense or relatively mild, hateful and jealous, or warm and caring - crushes may develop, tempers may fly. One thing is certain; the relationship is never dull.

The following observations are structured by two clinical frameworks, which will be entirely new to the peer-counseling literature - one developmental and one technical. The developmental theory is adapted from self-psychology (Kohut, 1984) and object relations theory (Winnicott, 1953), and views peer counselors as need-meeting transitional objects. The technical framework comes from Bibring's five principles of therapeutic intervention (cited in Glick & Meyerson, 1980).

The peer-counseling program that was examined in this study is housed in a voluntary, two-week residential counseling program for runaway and troubled youth. Clients are referred to the agency by school counselors, mental health professionals, parents, friends, the courts, protective services, and televised public-service announcements. The agency provides residential treatment to over 250 clients annually and offers:

. . . a safe shelter for runaway and homeless youth 24 hours daily, 365 days each year. The services are built around the core program of shelter, intensive counseling care, prevention, and family advocacy. Shelter care includes three nutritional meals daily, semi-private sleeping quarters, around the clock supervision by trained personnel, and a safe, comfortable home environment for a maximum of ten children. …