Learning from a Group Relations conference. By Stephanie Davies

Translating Learning from a Group Relations Conference to the Work of a Therapeutic Community for Traumatised Children. Stephanie Davies, Mulberry Bush School.

Throughout life we are constantly a part of different groups, and are often grappling with our own existence in relation to these groups. This can be through our desire to seek and become an established member of the group; a desire to be separate and distanced from the group; and trying to find a balance between the need to be identified with the group whilst also maintaining our own identity.

Since the concept of group and organisational dynamics was first introduced in the 1920’s, there has been an ever increasing interest in group dynamics, and a search for an understanding of how conscious and unconscious group dynamics influence organisational functioning, as well as the impact this has on the individuals within the group.

The process of exploring group dynamics and bringing into consciousness the reality of one’s own experience of group functioning can often be painful and confusing. However, it is an essential process to engage in if we desire to develop a greater understanding of the processes that influence everyday interactions, decision making processes and relationships.  This is particularly important when working with individuals who have complex and high level of needs, such as the children who are placed at the Therapeutic Community (TC) I work for.

Working with children who have experienced significant levels of abuse, trauma and loss can have a significant impact on the emotional health of the adults. If the emotional impact of working with traumatised children, and the group dynamics that are played out are left without being thought about and processed, it increases the likelihood that the groups will not be able to function appropriately and effectively, or that repetitions of the children’s complex early relationships and dynamics are more likely to be repeated.  Therefore, by gaining a better understanding of the way in which we all relate and both the conscious and unconscious processes that are present within the TC, it enables us to more effectively meet the needs of the children.

The group relations model was originally designed by the Tavistock Institute and is structured in a way that enables an understanding of inter and intra-group relationships to be explored.  The conference that I shall be reflecting upon is the Italian “Learning from Action” conference which integrates Group Relations and Therapeutic Community principles.  The conference took place in Italy over a three day period and was attended by participants from a wide variety of professional and cultural backgrounds.  I was one of three members of the TC that had been selected to attend as participants, with the CEO also attending but as a member of the staff group.

The main task of the conference was to explore the conscious and unconscious elements of group dynamics that influence everyday decision making processes.  This was done through the structure of the conference and the key tasks – “doing, thinking and learning”.

I aim to explore the main elements of the learning that I took from the conference and how these can be linked to working in a TC for traumatised children.  The main things I reflected on were the preparation for transition; separation and loss; understanding of the core tasks of a community; competition; communication and embracing and managing difference.

 Preparing for Transition:

I initially put my name forward to be considered for a place at the conference as I thought it would be interesting and that it would enable me to have the opportunity to build on the learning I had taken from a different group relations conference.  However, I didn’t realised the emotional impact it would have on me, in particular my levels of anxiety, until I received the email to say I had been selected to go.  I had initially thought that I wouldn’t feel as anxious about this group relations conference as I wasn’t entering into a situation that I had no internalised concept of, yet the more I read about the course, the more I became preoccupied with the practical requirements associated with attending the course.  For example, I became preoccupied with having the responsibility of looking after the money that was assigned for us participants; with the details around the travel arrangements, and whether or not I would remember to bring my passport or any other important documents.

It felt odd for me to be so anxious about the practical arrangements related to the conference, but to not hold any conscious anxiety regarding the actual task of the conference or with the more social elements such as who I would be sharing a room with or whether or not I would be able to “fit in”.  I then began to recognise that the other two participants that were attending from the TC were commenting on their anxieties about what it would feel like to be a part of the conference having never experienced something similar and were quoting the experiences of other people who had attended the conference in previous years.  This made me wonder if they were in fact holding some of my anxieties about the conference, perhaps then freeing me up to feel less anxious and to make connections between myself and those that had previously been through, and crucially survived, the experience.

It was at this point that I realised that for me, the process of the conference had already begun.  This made me wonder about the experience of the children who are transitioning to the TC and how they manage their expectations and anxieties around the move, i.e. creating a phantasy of what it might be like for them; linking it with current or previous experiences, or perhaps attempting to rejecting the placement before they arrive.

Additionally, perhaps my experience of being anxious about the practical elements of the conference might also be linked to the anxieties that we may have around a child that is transitioning to the TC, with the focus being on what is known and trying to fit anything unknown with something familiar. For instance, drawing parallels between my experience taking part in another group relations conference, and drawing parallels between existing/previous children at the TC to the child that is arriving as a way of managing our anxieties around the unknown/unexpected.

Separation and loss:

Another of the main aspects of my learning from this conference was the emotional experience of being separated from my family with limited and prescribed contact.

Although the conference took place over three days in total, the experience of being there made it feel for me as though it was much longer and stirred up personal feelings of separation and loss.  I was surprised that what felt initially like a simple process of applying for a place at the conference, being away for a few days in another country, and then coming back, had evoked such a strong emotional response.  However, I feel that what I was experiencing was a sense of loss of the things that are familiar to me, being replaced by unfamiliar things that I was not sure I would be able to manage, i.e. loss of a shared, spoken language; familiar surroundings; emotional containment I receive from my family, etc. which enabled me to get in touch with the emotional experience of the children that are placed with us at the TC.

Many of the children have experienced multiple home and school placements before they are placed at the TC, and are experiencing being separated from their families (foster, adoptive and/or birth) during their placement.  Although the children are able to make regular contact with their home placement whilst at the TC; return home on average every three weeks for either a “Weekend Home” or for the school holidays, and have varying levels of contact with their birth families, they are still experiencing separation and loss just by being at the TC.  Furthermore, the children’s previous experiences of separation and loss and their resulting internalised view of what happens during separations will also be stirred up.  I feel that this is something that can be really challenging to be emotionally attuned with as it is something we can all relate to, so will evoke strong personal responses in addition to experiencing the projections that we may receive due to being present and available for the children.

Communal tasks:

The three main activities of the group were to keep the communal areas clean, provide three meals a day for all of the community and to facilitate evening entertainment, and the key tasks (doing, thinking and learning) were focused around these activities.

During the initial whole group meeting, the group had to decide how the three main activities would be shared between all members of the group, i.e. how would the group be divided to make sure all activities were completed; would there be any rotation in the groups/activities the groups carried out, etc.  The process that then unfolded was that after a short period of silence, the group began to describe themselves, with some of the people who could speak both English and Italian acting as translators.  During this time, I found myself being lost for words or trying to find what I would like to say about myself.  This made me and wonder how I would like others to view me as an individual within the group, however, I was also aware of a desire to “blend in” to the group and feeling a great sense of relief that I was in the back row of the circle and had people in front of me.  On reflection, this reminded me of my experience of joining the TC and the initial struggle I had to be able to feel as though I was still myself whilst being an active member of the community.  I wonder if this is an experience the children share when they join the TC. What does it mean for them to be a part of the community? How does this shape how they view themselves; how they feel others view them and how others actually do view them?

Once the group had been given a reminder of the time remaining by a member of the staff group, there was a sense that the time left to decide how best to divide the tasks was not enough, which led to members of the group stating very concrete ideas of what they felt should be happening.  It appeared to me that as a group, we were seeking someone to take charge, however, once someone had put their ideas out, there was an instantaneous response from the group with someone else offering a different/opposing idea.

I feel that it is important to note that all bar one of the members offering an idea to the group were male, and the female members of the group that did offer thoughts, generally did so in a way that was offering a compromise between the thoughts that had already been offered to the group.  This made me wonder how gender roles might be played out within the TC, and how adults are able to take up both maternal and paternal roles.

When the groups and activities had been selected, my initial feeling was that I would like to be part of the cooking or entertainment groups, but was keen not to engage in the cleaning activities.  It was only when I had completed the cleaning activity on the final day of the conference that I realised I was reluctant to clean up the community rubbish, both in terms of the actual, physical mess and dirt, particularly in relation to bathrooms, but also in terms of a reluctance to engage in the emotional mess of the community.  In addition to this, I noticed that during the small and large reflection groups, I felt a desire to “fix” things/to support the process of finding a compromise.  This is a role I often find myself in and/or attempting to resist when alongside the children at the TC, particularly in relation to a desire to “fix” things and make them better for the children rather than having to sit with the difficult feelings evoked by not knowing what to do/getting in touch with the emotional experience of the children.


During the second evening, the competition between the groups became more apparent, particularly in relation to which group provided the best meal and which group provided the best entertainment. This competition went largely unacknowledged, particularly within the whole group reflections, however, the informal conversations were coloured by the competition, i.e. conversations around which group had been given the largest amount of money from the staff team to buy the food; the groups who had to use the leftovers from other groups cooking to create a meal feeling as though they were not able to succeed in the same way as if they went first; the group who provided the entertainment on the first night feeling as though the group who did it on the second night were luckier as they had already found out what the community is likely to respond to and were able to tailor the entertainment in relation to the success of the first night, etc.

I became aware of my own sense of competition and achievement when one of the staff members asked me for the recipe of the soup I had made, with a conscious desire for people to have preferred the soup I had made to the soup the previous group had made.

As well as acknowledging the competition between the groups, it is important to recognise that there was also intra-group competition with some people, myself included, feeling a desire to be a part of the activities that were the most exciting – i.e. cooking rather than setting the tables.

This made me wonder about the process of competition when looking after children in the TC, specifically the dynamic of competition that can arise between the assessment house and parallel houses and between the foundation stage and middle stage classes.  Additionally, feelings of competition are also evoked within the organisation when children are leaving the TC, i.e. will the next placement be able to meet the child’s needs as well as we have? What happens if they meet the child’s needs more easily/appropriately than we have?


As previously stated, the participants of the conference were from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, with a variety of languages spoken, which was one of the things I was most apprehensive about – how I would communicate with people that I do not share a common language with? On reflection, this made me realise that although the experience I had was based on trying to understand what shared non-verbal language I had with a group of strangers, parallels can be drawn to the experience of both the children and adults trying to understand the verbal language of the TC when they join.

Due to the history of the TC and the nature of the task, we have developed a certain language that we use – phrases and terms that are used in everyday interactions with both children and adults that are specific to the task of trying and understand the children’s behavioural communication and enabling them to develop the skills to relate to others in more appropriate and healthy ways.

I feel that my experience of taking part in the group relations conference challenged my sense of identity in relation to the role I have at the TC, but also in relation to my sense of self more generally.  I became frustrated at myself for not being able to understand a lot of what was being verbally communicated, but also with others for not telling me what was being said.  This frustration led to me quickly developing an ability to understand key words and to be able to respond appropriately in English to something that was said in Italian.  On reflection, this is something that is difficult to manage when working alongside the children and adults at the TC, especially when the children are struggling and there is a strong desire to find out what they are communicating and to make things better for them.  However, it is one of the core competencies of a practitioner working in a TC to be able to “sit with the unknown” and to hold the difficult feelings that are evoked within the adults when alongside the children when they are in crisis.

Furthermore, although I have focused on the Italian and English verbal communications, it is important to note that there were members of the group that were not able to speak either English or Italian, and would need different translations.  When in the group, the translations into a third language initially appeared as if people were being rude as they were talking over everyone, which made me wonder about how we manage triadic relationships.  For instance, how are we able to manage the communication from the child, from the adults within the TC and from the child’s family/wider network?

Managing and Embracing Difference:

When considering the ways in which difference was managed and embraced throughout the conference, one of the main aspects was a desire held within the group to eliminate any difference and to make everyone equal.  This was done through the translation of every sentence spoken, and although there were some benefits to this, it also inhibited the ability to develop an understanding of the non-verbal communication and the unconscious processes being played out.

Another of the difficulties I had during the conference was how I had to manage the cultural differences within the group, particularly with one of the women that I was sharing a room with.  She was from an Israeli Kibbutz and was very used to communal living, whereas I have always been very private and at times find it difficult to share living space with others.  This proved to be a challenge for me, particularly when it came to changing in front of the others in the room and feeling as though I did not have a space that was my own.  This was linked in my mind with the experience of the children at the TC who have to share their space with adults and children who are new to them, and the anxieties this may evoke within them.

Additionally, at the end of the conference, she gave me a handbag that had been handmade at her Kibbutz.  This made me feel really awkward as I was unsure what I had done to deserve the gift, felt confused as to how she would have known that she wanted to give me a parting gift and felt guilty for not having anything that I could offer her in return.  On reflection, I realised that I was looking at it from a very different perspective from her, and that she did not have a desire to receive a gift in return, but that she held a desire to offer a gift as recognition.  This raised the question for me of how we encourage children at the TC to take an active part in their cultures.

What Next?

On the journey home, I started to really think about what I had learnt from the conference and how I might be able to translate some of the learning to the role I have both internally within the organisation I work for, but also within the external organisations that I work within as a part of my outreach role.  The experience was a very powerful one for me, particularly in relation to gaining a better insight into the experience the children at the TC have when they are placed with us.

As is common with group relations conferences, the learning comes into place when “normality” starts again.  I have recently become more aware of the impact of being a member of a group whilst also considering the way in which I take up my own authority and identity within the group.  This was particularly prevalent for me during a recent meeting where I was asked to share my thoughts about a piece of work that I have been engaged in and felt as though my words and thoughts were trapped inside me.  I realised that this experience was similar to that of the initial group meeting within the conference where I had found it difficult to join in with the group sharing their name, some information about themselves and where they come from.  I felt as though the conversation was moving quite quickly and I had a set phrase in my mind that I felt comfortable with, but could not find an appropriate time to speak.  I have started to notice when this is happening and am more consciously aware in the moment of this being an indication of being anxious about my role within the group. However, this is also an indication of becoming aware of what I am holding for the group.

Another element of the experience that I feel translates to the experience of the children and adults at the TC was the variety of group situations that I was in, and the anxiety I had in relation to sharing my reflections and the vulnerability that this evoked.  This made me wonder about the children’s experience of being in a community meeting in the house or circle time in class, particularly when we are asking them to offer their feelings.

In conclusion, I feel that taking part in the Group Relations conference enabled me to become more attuned with the valency I have for certain roles within groups, the resistances I have and a deeper understanding of the task we ask of the children at the TC on a daily basis.  I believe that an understanding of group dynamics is essential for all members of a therapeutic community, but particularly those working with vulnerable and traumatised children.  It feels appropriate that we all gain a deeper understanding of the emotional experience of the children, but also of our own selves.