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The influence of the peer group

John Hudson

The evening that Lynn heard her boyfriend had given her up, she was all for going round to her boyfriend’s house and breaking every window in it. As reasoning had no effect I half carried her to her room and called the other residents to help me. I told them what Lynn had said and asked them to help me stop her leaving the home, either by a door or by throwing herself out of a window.

They stood, sat or leaned on furniture in a circle round Lynn and the next hour and a half was an eye-opener for me as they took over talking to and reasoning with her. No force was used to restrain her and the calm, sympathetic way in which they talked to her about her situation and how to cope with her feelings would have been an object lesson to any social worker. I didn’t need to say a word and Lynn went to bed to have a good night’s sleep.

That incident stands out among many less dramatic ones in my experience of how a "healthy peer group influence" can be such an important factor in good residential care.
I first came across this in a girls’ hostel where I was visiting a girl who had moved on from a children’s home. Though I later got to know the staff, and their version of what happened in the hostel was published, I first heard about it from other girls in the hostel and their obvious delight in what was going on and the way it had helped them and others who had been in the hostel came over very clearly.

The idea that residents can make a positive contribution to the success of residential care is not new: Homer Lane’s "Little Commonwealth" and Maxwell Jones’ "therapeutic community" both emphasise the contribution residents can make. More recently, Martin Wolins has identified it as one of the factors in successful residential care.’

What is interesting historically is that between 1930 and 1970 very few people paid any attention to the importance of peers in human development. Bowlby emphasised the vertical mother-child relationship; Freudians assumed that adult problems could all be reduced to unsatisfactory vertical parent-child relationships in early life and behaviourists stressed the importance of manipulating the environment – usually by people in "parental" role relationships with the people being manipulated.

It is, therefore, delightfully ironic that Harlow, whose earlier studies were pounced on to support Bowlby’s mother-child theories, has come up in the 70s with evidence of the value of peer relationships. Suomi and Harlow have found that monkeys that had become disturbed or maladjusted as a result of maternal deprivation could be successfully "treated" by being introduced to a "therapist" peer – and through this to a healthy peer group. Once this was accomplished all signs of disturbance disappeared.

Reading this and other recent studies took me back to a time when two seven-year-olds were admitted to the home in which I was working. One came from a "problem family" and had been in and out of care – as had his brothers and sisters – at each family crisis. The other had been cared for from birth by her mother. The first was bright, lively, an incorrigible mischief, and showed no signs at all of "deprivation"; the second was anxious, clinging, unable to take any decisions – indeed, totally "institutionalised" before she ever saw the front door of any institution.

The difference of which I was aware at the time (but did not realise its significance) was that the first child was part of a large family and had plenty of friends at home, while the second had never been allowed any friends. The power of peer relationships to bring out warmth, care and sensitivity in children is described by Freud and Dann in their study of six orphans rescued from a concentration camp, but this study tended to be dismissed in the 50s and 60s as a freak event brought about by freak circumstances. Only now is it becoming clear that this was in fact a normal process which was highlighted by the freak circumstances.

Residential workers, however, are often made aware of the power of peer relationships in less happy circumstances. In one old people’s home the residents talk openly about who is going to "go" next, making pointed comments about particular residents’ appearance and health; in a hostel for offenders new boys are told how to "keep their noses clean" and not to go soft on the staff; in a children’s home, you can’t trust the staff because they always spill the beans to the fieldworkers. We can never escape peer group influences, but we can make them work in step with the philosophy of the home.

I have emphasised before the importance of having a philosophy; this needs to be made clear to the residents and to be acted on by the staff. New residents also need to be told the philosophy of the home before they come in. If they find on arrival that their peers say exactly the same things as the staff, they can begin to trust the staff. Where they trust the staff they are more likely to support what the staff want to do and encourage others to do the same. Thus new residents do not have double messages – one set from the staff and one set from the residents. It is only possible to sustain this trust where staff are prepared to be honest with the residents.

Once trust is part of the home it makes it so much easier for residents to take part in the care of the home. The staff will always receive support in dealing with "difficult" residents; where residents have problems they know they can turn either to other residents or to the staff without being accused of being "uncooperative" or a "creep".
Where staff trust the residents they will allow and encourage residents to help each other.

John Hudson, writing in Social Work Today 13 (16)  

References
Wolins, M. (Ed.), Successful Group Care: Explorations in the Powerful Environment. Chicago; Aldine 1974.
Suomi, S. & Harlow, H. F., "Social Rehabilitation of Isolate-Reared Monkeys". Developmental Psychology (6), 1972, pp.487-496.
Freud, A. & Dann, S., "An Experiment in Group Upbringing". In R. S. Eissler et al (Eds.) The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child Vol. 6. New York; International Universities Press, 1951. 

 

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