Going mixed

In Europe, as is the case in North America, homogenisation is the rule when it comes to considering care for delinquent adolescents. A few exceptions aside, isolating and putting together young people with similar problems are still the key words. In her doctoral thesis, which focuses on the influence of peers in the development of normative and antisocial behaviour, Cécile Mathys opts for heterogeneity by mixing delinquent and non-delinquent adolescents within the framework of a group discussion activity.

Jeune délinquantPeer influence, sometimes seen as a means to develop one’s identity, to protect oneself from social rejection, and sometimes considered less positively as participating in the development of unsuitable or deviant behaviour, is a popular subject among authors. Two schools of thought, with generally complementary approaches, stand out. One believes in peer influence through the prism of socialisation – the individual adopts the values of the group he/she frequents, which will reinforce his/her integration; while the other one places the emphasis on the selection procedure – the individual associates with similar people and in return, this reinforces his/her own values and behaviours. Nevertheless, there are still unanswered questions in this widely studied area of research. For instance: why do some individuals experience a positive influence from their peers while others are subjected to a negative experience? “This is one of the questions I wanted to examine”, Cécile Mathys immediately explains. A doctor in clinical psychology and a researcher in the psychology of delinquency and psychosocial development department at ULg, she has just devoted her thesis to the role that the people we associate with can have on the development of delinquent versus adapted behaviour. “As yet, we don’t really understand the variables that are involved in the process of influence. My study aims to reveal some of them in the special case of a group activity for delinquent adolescents, a population situated at the far end of the continuum of adaptation.” To achieve this, the young PhD student thought of bringing together young people in a group discussion activity – such as those held in young offenders’ institutions – and analysing the resulting discussion. “The idea was to illustrate the interplay of influences in terms of verbal and non-verbal interaction. Many studies do indeed show that interaction is a good predictor of later behaviour. On a broader level, the aim was to forge pathways for reflection and help residential care to progress.”

Experimenting with difference

What’s original about the point of view adopted by Cécile Mathys is that she decided to leave the beaten track by mixing delinquent (having committed offences) and non-delinquent adolescents, by experimenting with this type of mix within a group of peers, “a system we only come across very rarely, whether it be on an empirical or practical level”, she points out. Even if it is true that on a community level some measures concerning delinquency tend towards heterogeneity – for instance, community services, mediation with the victim or allowing the delinquent to stay with his/her family under certain conditions –, when offences reach a certain degree of severity and require admission to an institution, this still tends to be homogenous. “My research provided the opportunity to experiment with something else, to see mixing as a means to achieve positive results among delinquent adolescents. Exclusion and isolation are certainly not the best solutions.” This thought has been in a corner of the young PhD student’s mind since she worked in a young offenders’ institution as a clinical psychologist. “Even if the institution tries to provide the most suitable answers to these adolescents’ difficulties, we often observe some kind of attempt among them to outdo each other owing to the fact that they are inevitably interacting continuously, comparing and sharing their own experiences. This isolation therefore tends to reinforce deviant behaviour. The peer group is even likely to counterbalance the positive effects of the care provided: some of the things they’re taught don’t work simply because when learning them, if they don’t match the values of the other group members, the individual risks exclusion.”

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