The Ambivalence Dance

My new gig is at a day treatment program for youth. All of my clients are special education students in the county’s public school system. As a result, I am working on becoming more familiar with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs/Plans) since all of the students I will work with are required to have one.

I am always drawn to the section of social and emotional goals since that is what my counseling sessions are supposed to address. I’ve noticed that just about every student’s IEP has at least one goal focused on increasing their ability to identify emotions/frustrations and developing coping mechanisms and strategies to implement in response. On a more basic level, some goals aim to help students develop the language to express and verbalize how they feel.

The underlying message is: please get these students to stop throwing furniture!

I was not surprised to see these goals, but I kept thinking these goals could apply to most people… How many “successful” adults do we all know who lack the self-awareness necessary to communicate their emotions productively?

Of course, I have access to the rest of these student’s records, so I know that the goals come within the context of violent behavior, aggression and/or self-harm. These additional factors add urgency to their goals, but my feeling is that every student’s education plan should include support in recognizing, communicating and managing their feelings. If we reserve emotional education for those students who desperately need it, it seems we are suggesting that children should be able to do something that many adults cannot do.

Emotional education does not need to be reserved for students who desperately need it. If we start earlier, some of those students may never display the behaviors that land them in day treatment. Not all, but certainly some.

One of the ways these goals will be addressed in my program is through social skills groups. Naturally, I have been doing a lot of research on what is out there already on such groups in terms of activities to address negative behaviors and support communication of emotions. While on this journey (which involved a number of Pinterest-induced internet wormholes), I began to wonder, what about ambivalence?

I once explained/discussed “ambivalence” with a 17 y/o female client and a couple of sessions later, she recalled the conversation, saying that she felt a new way of thinking had been opened up to her. “I always feel so many ways at once,” she said, “but I always thought that was a problem before. Now it seems more normal…”

And there’s always that scene from Girl, Interrupted:


I’ll be working with younger, primarily middle-school-aged clients this year, so addressing the topic of ambivalence will be different and possibly more challenging. I have found ambivalence addressed to some extent in attachment theory, motivational interviewing and some other academic writing, but I have not found any activities for youth that talk about emotional ambivalence. (If you know of anything, please send it my way!)

Yet based on my experience so far, it seems that addressing ambivalence could be one of the most important parts of helping youth who are struggling to identify and express emotional states. Otherwise, how will a child feel comfortable communicating what they are feeling when a single option doesn’t fit?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thrown a chair just because I’m angry. Usually I am at least feeling confused or scared, too.

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4 thoughts on “The Ambivalence Dance

  1. Alannah says:

    I love this post – you’re very wise (and you’re right about most adults not being able to communicate emotions/lacking self-awareness).

    • Thanks as usual for the positive feedback 🙂 Always appreciated. Communicating emotions is tricky for all of us, I think, but the worst is when people who have the language to do it refuse to make the effort.

  2. Heiddi says:

    Hello my fellow social services crusader! This is a great post. The ambivalence dance is all too common I feel and it is hard to deal with – but as your teen said it’s okay to feel different feelings at the same time. You can do this babe. And if you need tips for IEP’s, I’m your girl! xoxo Miss you!

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