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Existential theory: helping school counselors attend to youth at risk for violence

Laurie Carlson

Freedom, essentially an ability to choose action, is often sought by individuals but can also be a source of anxiety (Cooper, 1990; Hayim, 1980; May, 1979; Wahl, 1949; Yalom, 1980). When there is an imbalance of freedom, either too much or too little, an individual will strive to reach balance. Consideration of Jay's case seems to indicate too much freedom and responsibility at home and too little in school. Jay does appear to be seeking structure and adventure, a common response to imbalances in freedom and/or responsibility.

Seeking Structure
Since freedom of choice is not always comfortable or easy, structure and foundation from outside are sometimes sought to ease the burden (Bauman & Waldo, 1998). Considering the emotional stress that Jay expresses concerning expectations at home, it is highly possible that he does find comfort in the social structure of his urban peer group. According to Jay, the group has some norms regarding inclusion and acceptance. This appears to be the one place where Jay seems to know what exactly is expected of him and how he fits into the group. Regardless of how society as a whole may feel about these "gang-type peer groups" they do seem to provide for young people a place of clear expectations and inclusion for anyone willing to meet the expectations. Empirical evidence has indicated that:

Boys involved in school violence were over four times more likely than boys engaged in community violence to be gang members with a high proportion of deviant peers rather than gang members with a low proportion of deviant peers. The boys who were violent at school were also less involved in positive activities and had lower network boundary density between adults and peers than did boys displaying community violence but not school violence (Minden, Henry, Tolan, & Gorman-Smith, 2000, p. 102). It appears, therefore, that Jay's involvement in the gang-related activity is an imperative issue for his school counselor to address.

Seeking Adventure
Jay has expressed that he sees the teachers in his school creating an environment with arbitrary and meaningless boundaries that leave him feeling invisible and undervalued. For Jay, school has become just another place where he is present but unengaged and bored. Diamond (1996) introduced the precept that the mundane may be perceived as an existential threat by certain individuals, and engaging in violence can be felt as ecstasy for them. This sense of the mundane may be heightened for some students in predictable, repetitive (Baker, 1998), and overly restrictive school environments (Gorski & Pilotto, 1993). It appears that Jay needs a school counselor who is willing to recognize the existential threat he may feel from the school environment and who can gently and skillfully help him choose positive ways to cope with or respectfully change the environment. School counselors who desire to address such issues will find literature on invitational education and counseling to be extremely valuable (Juhnke & Purkey, 1995; Purkey, 1999; Purkey & Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt, 1999).


Baker, J. A. (1998). Are we missing the forest for the trees? Considering the social context of school violence. Journal of School Psychology, 36, 29-44.

Bauman, S., & Waldo, M. (1998). Existential theory and mental health counseling: If it were a snake, it would have bitten! Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 20, 13-27.

Cooper, D. E. (1990). Existentialism: A reconstruction. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Diamond, S. A. (1996). Anger, madness, and the daimonic: The psychological genesis of violence, evil, and creativity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Gorski, J. D., & Pilotto, L. (1993). Interpersonal violence among youth: A challenge for school personnel. Educational Psychology Review, 5, 35-61.

Hayim, G. J. (1980). The existential sociology of Jean-Paul Sartre. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Juhnke, G. A., & Purkey, W. W. (1995, February). An invitational approach to preventing violence in schools. Counseling Today, pp. 50, 52, 55.

May, R. (1979). Psychology and the human dilemma. New York: W.W. Norton.

May, R., & Yalom, I. (1995). Existential psychotherapy. In J. C. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current Psychotherapies (5th ed., pp. 262-292). Itasca, IL: R E. Peacock.

Minden, J., Henry, D. B., Tolan, R H., & Gorman-Smith, D. (2000). Urban boys' social networks and school violence. Professional School Counseling, 4, 95-104.

Purkey, W. W. (1999). Creating safe schools through invitational education (Report No. EDO-CG-99-7). Retrieved May 14, 2002, from ERIC/CASS Digests:

Purkey, W. W., & Schmidt, J. J. (1990). Invitational learning for counseling and development. Ann Arbor, MA: ERIC Counseling and Personnel Services Clearinghouse.

Schmidt, J. (1999). Counseling in schools essential services and comprehensive programs (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Wahl, J. (1949). A short history of existentialism. New York: The Philosophical Library.

Carlson, L.A. (2003). Existential theory: helping school counselors attend to youth at risk for violence.
Professional School Counseling, June 2003

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