Adolescent Aggression and Imagery: Contributions from Object Relations and Social Cognitive Theory

By Lennings, Chris J. | Adolescence, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Aggression and Imagery: Contributions from Object Relations and Social Cognitive Theory


Lennings, Chris J., Adolescence


Yates (1983), among others, is highly critical of theorists such as Lazarus (1967) who have attempted to synthesize theoretically opposed approaches, although in defense of Lazarus, his approach has been not to synthesize theory but rather techniques. However, it seems a matter of logic that in the use of techniques based on differing theories, adequate use of those techniques is predicated on understanding the theories that give rise to them, if for no other reason than knowing the limitations of the techniques adopted. This necessitates case-driven fusion of theory as well as technique. This paper deals with the fusion of two major theoretical systems - object relations and cognitive behavioral systems. Cognitive behavioral technique is itself a fusion of behavioral and cognitive approaches (Hollon & Kendall, 1979).

Aggressive adolescents are difficult clients. They are involuntary patients and resent the intrusion of mental health professionals into their lives. Further, they are poorly motivated to undergo therapy or admit to problems let alone imagine some kind of change state. Many externalize issues: the problem is not theirs, but lies in the people with whom they come into contact. They have contempt for their victims because they perceive them as "asking" for the treatment they get. Engaging such clients is often mediated by court injunction, school disciplinary procedures, or referrals by angry parents. All three situations are hardly designed to foster the therapeutic alliance. Thus, it behooves the therapist to find a technique that has "appeal" to these youths, that challenges them and interests them as a means of gaining some kind of investment in the therapy process. A technique that capitalizes on the natural propensity of youths to use their imagination is one such way of engaging them.

Aggression is the manifestation of a failure of self-control (Novaco, 1979), and self-control is the means by which aggression is moderated and can be conceptualized in a variety of ways.

Object relations and aggression. Object relations has been defined as "the nature and development of mental representations of the self and others . . . and on the cognitive and affective processes brought to bear on these representations" (Western, 1991; p. 429). Object relations assumes that "by projection and introjection human beings live in two worlds at once, the inner mental world and the external material world and constantly confuse the two" (Guntrip, 1974; p. 830). Further, a key concept of object relations is the notion of the self as an organizational structure that relates objects (representations of persons) to each other (Bohart & Todd, 1988). Thus, self-control is, in part, involved in the way a person uses these representations. This involves the perception of objects or part objects, the ordering of relations, and the use of environmentally provided information. The latter process refers to Melanie Klein's notion of adaptive control: "individuals co-ordinate information from external reality and from emotions, fantasies and motives so as to remain in adaptive control of information" (cited in Santostefano, 1987; p. 12.)

Thus, one means of referring to self-control is through the manipulation of images, which involves the perception of internal objects and the ordering of the relations that bind them. Guided imagery also allows for the introduction of external information. Objects may be internally contradictory, contradict each other, or be in conflict with information provided by the external world. Control is achieved through the resolution of object conflict, which is done through the use of ego defenses (Vaillant, 1971). Since aggression occurs when the ego defenses are either inadequate or inappropriate, imagery can be used to "demonstrate" more effective adaptive means of dealing with impulses. With this approach it is possible to see aggression as a maladaptive coping response. …

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