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Using RfG in Groups with Children Exhibiting “Acting Out” Behaviors (2014)

By Maureen Sand, MSMFT, RfG-CP, RfG-CT

Many of the children who attend the clinical after-school program in which I work attempt to be “in charge” through tantrums. They have difficulty following the directions of adults, often across settings. In family therapy sessions, I will often suggest an enactment that is a version of Master/Servant games that the families and I have called, “Employer/Employee.” I instruct the family that we are very good employees and we are going to do everything that we are asked to do. In response, I explain that we may earn a pretend paycheck, be given a make-believe bonus, or be “fired.” If we are “fired,” we are not out of the game. I explain that when we are fired, we leave the playspace temporarily. The “fired employee” will walk to the wall, touch it, and then return to the playspace and continue in the role of employee. I then take the role of “Boss” first, in order to demonstrate to the family members the tasks that may be given to the “employees.” I will often ask family members to pretend to type invoices, file, or take the company car to be washed.

After several instructions and as the family members begin the enactment, I then ask a family member to be the boss. I often start with an older sibling, and then the child who is the identified patient. Eventually, the parents and the children are all given a turn. If a family member does not want a part in the enactment, I ask the family member to be a “good audience” and let me know how we played our parts.

As participants progress in the enactment, there are often smiles, laughter, and good-natured protests when someone is “fired.” The children enjoy telling the adults what to do. Near the end of the enactment, I will instruct everyone that we are “bad employees.” I ask that the participants not listen to the boss. I will then give the child who is the identified patient a chance to give instructions to the “bad employees.” The family members and I will give reasons why we cannot comply to the boss’s request. Although the child may become frustrated, he is often still smiling and playful as he fires the “bad employees.” If time allows, I may allow a sibling to take the role of boss to “bad employees.” However, I do not ask the parent to direct participants who are “bad employees” as they are already very familiar others not listening to them.

At this point, I end the enactment. I ask the children members how it felt to have their instructions followed. The family members will often say that they had fun and they enjoyed others listening to them. I then ask the parents, and they will often say that they enjoy having others listen to their directions. I then ask the child who directed the “bad employees” how it felt when people didn’t listen. They usually say that they felt angry or frustrated. Many of the children will describe how they felt frustrated in their bodies. We then talk about how frustrated their parents and teachers feel at such times.