One of my favorite therapeutic interventions is the two-night camping trip we take with our pre-teen/teenage group called Huddle Up. No phones, no wifi, no video games. Just East Texas pines, rolling hills, and just enough wildlife to get you thinking twice about booking it through the woods unsupervised. The timing of the trip is planned intentionally, intersecting the 12-week program down the middle. The purpose is to give the kids an experience they’ll never forget. For most of them, this is their first time outside of Dallas, first time camping, or sometimes even their first time sleeping away from home. It’s challenging and incredibly rewarding. But most of all, it propels the group into the working phase of therapy. Bound together with stories from the woods, they step back into the group therapy room at our Harry Hines campus with a new perspective, bond and energy.

Typically, we sleep outside in tents at camp. That is, of course, if weather allows. On this particular trip, the weather decided that plan B was the better option. Following the 2-hour task of taking down our campsite and transporting it to the indoor shelter we would call home for the next 10 hours, I found myself taking a break and observing the kids as they setup up their areas to watch a movie before “lights out.”

As I gazed upon what appeared to be a sea of multicolored sleeping bags, pillows, stray Gatorade bottles, discarded backpacks and smiling children, all self-organized around each other in the adolescent habitat they had created, I couldn’t help but smile myself. The cohesion was tangible. This was the working group I was talking about.

My smile broke when another group leader pointed out that we should start the movie soon. I knew the expectation I was about to set wasn’t going to actually “sit” well with them. As I called for their attention, I felt an uneasiness inside of me, but not knowing exactly what it meant, I continued with my directions.

“Hey everyone, we are getting ready to start the movie so I either need you guys to separate – boys in one row and girls in the other – if you want to watch the movie with the lights off...” (confused stares...) “…or we can leave the lights on if you want to stay where you are. Totally up to y’all.” The confused stares began to shift into faces filled with sadness and disappointment. As they began to look away from me, the implication of what I had just announced hit me like a ton of bricks. So hard, in fact, that I told them to think about it as I left the room and sat down on a bench in the hallway.

To begin with, I was aware that there were several kids in the group who were openly gay, lesbian, or questioning. I can still see the pain in their eyes as I transformed from someone who understood and supported them to someone who might not actually get them at all. The implicit message I had sent was clear: boys and girls needed to be separated by gender because boys were only physically attracted to girls, and girls were only physically attracted to boys. Further, I was implying that boys and girls couldn’t sit next to one another and be respectful of the other person’s boundaries and personal space.

When I walked back in the room, no one had budged. ‘Good for them’ I thought. I called for their attention again and then sat down with them as I began to speak. “I am incredibly sorry you guys. The comment I made was insensitive and ignorant. I asked you to sit in rows by gender, but I don’t need you to do that. What is important to me is that you feel safe and that you are safe. So, you are welcome to sit anywhere you’d like to watch the movie with the lights off. To help me insure you’re safe, please just create at least a one-foot imaginary bubble around you. I want everyone to feel comfortable in this space. Let me know if there is anything else I can do to support that process.” As I stood up, I looked over each group members’ face. Three of them had tears in their eyes. They smiled at me and I nodded my head. A few other kids simply said, “Thank you Ms. Taylor.”

It’s so easy to fall back on traditional viewpoints or habits that have been ingrained in us. My motivation for asking the kids to reorganize themselves by gender was to minimize the possibility of a physical boundary being crossed with or without consent. As clinical group leaders working with adolescents, this is a developmentally appropriate limit. What was no longer appropriate were the socialized gender roles I asserted upon my clients. It wasn’t about gender because boundary violations are not contingent upon gender, physical or otherwise. It was about safety. Now, that doesn’t mean that gender wasn’t part of the equation, it simply meant that the equation had changed.

In order to shift from habitual or automatic thought and tendencies, we first have to be self-reflective and aware of the way our behaviors impact others. That day, I saw that my words were actually harmful instead of helpful. I realized there was a better way to make sure all of my clients felt safe, and the best way to start was by honoring their identity.

When we returned to our group room at Harry Hines the following week, I also entered changed by my experience in the woods. 

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