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An Interview with Allan Guggenbühl on

Adolescent Violence

Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Murray Stein
Murray Stein interviews Allan Guggenbühl

Murray Stein: I'm sure you are aware, Allan, of the recent tragedy in Littleton,
Colorado, where two teenage boys entered a high school with weapons and killed 12
classmates and 1 teacher and wounded 23 other classmates. In the States, we are
looking for causes. Who or what is responsible for this kind of violence among
today's youth? Fingers are being pointed at parents, at TV shows and video games,
at gun stores. Do you have an opinion? What is your diagnosis?
Allan Guggenbühl: As an outsider to American culture, it is of course
presumptuous to give a diagnosis on that terrible tragedy in Littleton. What I can
give you are my impressions on how the problem of teenage violence is being
discussed in academia, the media, and in the discussion groups I attended in the
U.S. as a European child and juvenile psychologist, psychotherapist and expert in
violence in schools.

The TV shows and Video games are certainly not to blame for that incident. To put
the blame on the media is the easy way out; the media serves as a scapegoat. The
juveniles, who are attracted to TV shows and video games, react in various different
ways: many are revolted by what they see and actually become morally more
sensitive, the majority clearly are able to place these games in the realm of the
imaginal, and only a tiny fraction might imitate what they see. These juveniles are
prone to be influenced by other images of violence as well. In one class I worked
with, two children abducted a classmate, locked her up in a barn, and told her she
was going to be hanged. They told me later they had learned to do this in Sunday
school; bad persons should be hanged! As they thought their classmate was one....

The parents of course have an influence on the behavior of their children. But here
again their influence is grossly overestimated. Juveniles are a lot more led by the
images and myths that are dominant in their youth culture. This culture follows an
antagonistic pattern: values and behaviors are attractive that enable a
differentiation from the culture of the grown ups. Youth seeks things which the old
people abhor. The vast majority of the juveniles don't act out their need to be
different from the grown up in reality, but achieve this gain in the realm of the

Here comes my first diagnosis: my impression is that in the U.S. this antagonistic
quality is not respected. One still believes in "teaching the good values and right
behavior and the power of the good example by the grown ups." From the
psychological point of view this is naive. In order to prevent violent incidents like
Littleton, one needs to introduce violence into schools on the level of the imaginal
and by encouraging aggressive rituals. It is not enough that students are being
taught to be nice with each other and to love each other; they have also to learn
how to be in contact and do something with feelings of hate, with their fascination
with violence and their longing for violence. They have to be conscious of their
shadow. As Paracelsus taught us: the symptom carries the cure.

Pointing the finger at the parents sounds to me as the ritualistic evocation of one of
the great American myths: In order to get rid of the abysmal, one seeks shelter in a
positive mythic image. It has nothing to do with the psychological reality of the
juveniles. It's a mythic defense mechanism.

In Littleton and other similar incidents, the repressed fascination with the image of
the abysmal manifests itself and explodes into the Upperworld. It needs this
extreme violent quality, because otherwise one would not look at the image.
Littleton is a psychological counter-reaction to the - in my view - naïve psychological
view of the juveniles.

Murray Stein: Americans are generally convinced that violent images in film and on
TV encourage, or even induce, violent behavior in children. The newspapers are full
of reports that "studies show" this to be the case. I have not examined those
studies, and I am sure they do not "prove" this to be so, but people are generally
convinced that images of violence are bad for kids and for society. Yet you advocate
introducing violence as a possible behavior pattern into schools, on the theory that
like can cure like. What do you have in mind? And are you sure this will work? What
is your evidence? Do you have "studies that show" this to be the case?

Allan Guggenbühl: Various empirical studies I looked at do show in scientific terms

a relation between the violent images in film and TV and the behavior of children or
adolescents. Children who watch movies with violence become more agitated, fight
more and are more aggressive, but -and this is the decisive argument — there is not
one study that proves that children or adolescents actually become more violent,
that their moral structure breaks down, and that they are prone to vicious acts. In
other words, their aggression increases, but that does not necessarily lead to
violence. In the right setting, the effect can be even the contrary. They become
conscious of their innate violence and start reflecting on themselves. But of course
not all juveniles react that way.

That the introduction of aggression into schools as possible behavior can be effective
in curbing violence is not just an academic theory. It is based on my own and my
colleague's experience working with violent adolescent individuals and groups. As
director of the Institute for Conflict Management and Mythodrama and the
department for group psychotherapy of the State of Bern (Switzerland), I have been
conducting crisis interventions and violence prevention programs throughout the
German speaking part of Switzerland, southern Germany, and Austria. We have also
organized many more prevention programs in Holland and Sweden. The last four
years we have done more than 70 interventions in school settings where violence
was the problem and have set the frame for many more violence prevention
programs. Our crisis intervention teams are called up after severe incidents, like
rape, murder (of other juveniles or teachers), shootings and when teachers are
beaten up or blackmailed and classes cannot be conducted any more.

Unfortunately, violence does also occur in our country. One reason might be that
Switzerland is a very heterogeneous society. It has the highest percentage of foreign
born inhabitants (with the exception of Luxembourg, but a higher percentage than
the U.S.) More than 30% of the population comes from a non-Swiss ethnic
background. People have immigrated to our country coming from Albania, Turkey,
Sri Lanka, Zaire and of course from the ethnically closer countries like Italy, Spain,
Portugal, etc. Many schools have more then 80% foreign students, many from
countries at war, like Kosova-Albania, "Kurdistan," or Sri Lanka. When working with
these often very agitated youths, it is absolutely unthinkable to present ourselves as
goody-goodies or role models. Having to find a way to appease these juveniles and
motivate them to work with us and with the teachers in order to create a non-violent
environment, we had to pursue some unconventional paths. This was when we
developed this basically Jungian approach and found out that it worked. After
interventions or the initiation of a violence prevention program, there is less
violence, and the adolescents are willing to do their share to tackle the problem. The
idea to work with images of violence developed out of these experiences.

The Department of Education of the University of Bern investigated our approach

and conducted an empirical study in order to test the effectiveness of our approach
(Kohli/Lauener 1995). They found out, that according to the parents, school boards,
and students, violence decreased significantly.

Murray Stein: What you say about your work is fascinating, Allan. I am intrigued
by your phrase, "this basically Jungian approach." Can you say some more about the
approach, and also give a concrete example of what you have done? I'd like to know
what one of your interventions has actually looked like. Can you share that without
violating confidentiality?

Allan Guggenbühl: A basic idea in Jungian psychology is that we have to confront

and integrate our shadow. We have to develop images to represent our unconscious
desires and repressed complexes. If we can symbolize what might lie behind
emotional problems, disorientation, aggression or depression, there is a fair chance
that the shadow will not dominate us. In order to find the right image, we have to
concentrate on the creative function of psyche and use our ability to fantasize and

In our crisis interventions, we follow a similar approach. Instead of pathologizing or

moralizing about the behavior of the aggressors, we try to find out what their
behavior is telling us. Why are these adolescents behaving the way they do, what is
the psychological significance of their behavior and their fascination with aggression?
Violence, as we well know, always happens in specific psychic contexts. It can be the
expression of a myth or a complex that is not culturally integrated. We try to
concentrate on the myths that the adolescents unconsciously act out. We want to
detect the suppressed elements of their psyche. Instead of re-educating them and
forcing them into violence prevention programs, we try to read the 'soul message'
behind their behavior. We approach them with the idea that their behavior also
contains the answers to the problems they are trying to solve with their aggression.

Let me be more concrete by describing an intervention. Our crisis interventions

consist of seven steps. We differentiate between these steps because in moments of
turmoil the involved people need a basic orientation for what to do. When there is a
lot of confusion and emotion around, a clear program of action is necessary.

This particular intervention started with a call from the head of a school in a small
town. He was desperate and angry because beatings had occurred on the premises
of his school. One student was severely wounded. The interrogation of the police
and teachers led nowhere. Of course none of the other students saw anything or
knew anything about the perpetrators. Nobody was willing to talk. The parents of
these 14 and 15 year old students were enraged! They demanded that strict
measures be taken and wanted their children placed in other schools. Rumors
spread. Supposedly the beaten student had been attacked by an Albanian gang.
Others reported that he had actually stolen bottles of champagne and was trying to
sell them. The teachers were afraid and immobilized. In this situation the
headmaster decided to call for a crisis intervention by our Institute.

Our seven steps were explained to the head of the school:1) talk with the teachers;
2) a meeting with parents; 3) a visit to the school; 4) group work with the class and
use of the mythodrama; 5) evaluation of the teaching methods; 6) a follow up after
three months; and 7) a final meeting with parents and other people involved. This is
how it went at this intervention.

1. Talk with the teachers

First we had to persuade the teachers to cooperate. We explained our approach

and conditions. We wanted them to do their share to alleviate the problem. In
this first intervention, two of the teachers were willing to cooperate and were glad
that someone from the outside had been called to deal with the problem. One
teacher was ambivalent. His attitude towards psychology was hostile, and he felt
that "chains and curfew" should be the answer. And besides, "it was the parents'
responsibility" to look after their juveniles.

2. Parents evening

Now the parents were invited to a meeting. At the beginning of the evening the
teachers made it clear to the parents that their work and teaching would also be
scrutinized. It's not only the students who have to participate in the program. We
explained to the parents that when working with the class, we concentrate on the
group and not the individual. We don't pick out individual perpetuators, but ask
the class to solve the problem of violence. This was important because otherwise
many parents would not agree to back the program.

We then talked with the parents in sub-groups and wanted to know their
perception of the dynamics in the class and of the problem of violence. Also we
wanted to know what they thought the teachers' role was. We needed to hear the
opinions of the parents in order to be able to work with the class and the
teachers. We then briefly explained our approach and said, that we would make
an intervention on the condition that everyone would cooperate.

The evening with the parents was very chaotic. They shouted and insulted each
other. They said that their sons and daughters were being bullied in class, that
weapons had appeared, and that teachers were completely ignorant of these
facts. The parents felt that not enough was being done. The atmosphere was very
tense. Finally, after a lot of talking we set out the goals of the intervention:
pacification of the class, elimination of possible weapons, and re-establishment of
a good learning atmosphere in class.

3. Visit to the school

The teachers of that particular school were a very heterogeneous group. They had
set out certain rules in their school, but they were unwilling to enforce them.
Many teachers thought that as long as they were getting along with their class,
everything was fine. They did not care about what happened outside their
classrooms. The level of cooperation among the teachers was very low.

4. Work with the class: Mythodrama

This was the key element of our intervention. We assembled the class in a large
gym and worked with the whole class during the next three hours. We
approached the class according to the dynamics of the group. We presented
ourselves as super-gang-leaders, and we had to show off our toughness in order
to irritate them. After some warm-up exercises we did a mythodrama. We related
a story that to our perception reflected the basic challenges and problems of that
particular class. We wanted our story to reflect the myth that they were
unconsciously following. We did not tell the whole story but only part of it. They
had to imagine the end of it. Later they expressed their endings through
paintings. We then made a connection between what they had produced and the
problems of the class. We talked about their problems and demanded from the
class that they decide on a concrete method of change to improve the situation in
the school.

In this class most of the students acted cool at first. We addressed them in a very
impersonal way and told them the story of Stalingrad. We described the situation
and feelings of the trapped German soldiers —their hunger, their desperation, the
deaths, mutilations and the violence they experienced. We chose that story
because these students felt to us like street fighters in a hostile environment.
They identified with the myth of the ghetto kids, felt like loners in a strange and
cold world. We told the story of Stalingrad in order to give them metaphors that
symbolized the psychological state they were in.

The class listened to the story attentively. They were surprised that we told them
such a horror story. Some of their fantasized endings contained a lot of violence,
some manifested a group spirit. Their endings gave us hints as to the resources
the class might have. The endings were drawn, looked at, and interpreted. The
class felt under siege, communication with the outside world was difficult because
of emotional and ideological barriers. Their endings gave us ideas for steps that
could be taken to find solutions, so they could come into closer contact with the
"other side," with the teachers, parents, and maybe hostile gang members. They
decided that they would set up some lines of communication with the teachers,
that a letter box would be placed in front of the teachers' staff room so students
could pass information to them without having to give their names.

We also found out during the mythodrama that members of an outside gang were
terrorizing the school premises. Before the beating incident had occurred, a fight
had taken place on the grounds of the school. Some students resisted the
outsiders, blamed them because of thefts, and called them "Yugo-Scheisse"
(Yugoslavian scum) and "your mother" (a very bad insult).The nature of the
insults left the Yugoslavians and Albanians no other choice than to react violently.
Their ethnic code called for revenge. They attacked the students of the school,
who felt abandoned by the teachers in their struggle to maintain order. None of
these feelings were verbalized to the teachers. The students did not find a way to
divulge their fears because their group code forbade passing on information of
what was happening within their peer group. In the mythodrama session, their
worries became apparent. The beaten student was a gang member who had
blackmailed and threatened other students repeatedly.

We concluded from this information that more had to be done by the teachers to
provide security. We gave them that feed-back, so they could start organizing
efficient controls. The students had to prove that they were capable of doing
something against further incidents, and they had to prove this to the teachers
and parents.

The class participated in two further mythodrama sessions during the next four
weeks. Altogether we worked with the class three times without teachers present.
The class presented a solution to tackle their problem, and we discussed whether
the measures were effective.

5. Evaluation of teaching methods

Parallel to the work with the class, we worked with the teachers and evaluated
their teaching methods and the way they approached the class. The teachers
organized patrols on the school premises and decided they would have a closer
look at the juveniles they detected on the grounds of school. When they saw
someone who was not familiar, they decided to react and ask him or her where
he or she was from.

6. Final intervention

After a break of three months, another mythodrama session was organized with
the class. We found out that the measures which the class and the teachers had
decided on were effective and the situation was calm.

7. Parents evening

A parents evening concluded the intervention program. The teachers, the School
Board, and the psychologist who worked with the class gave their impressions of
how everything had worked out. This particular intervention was considered
successful by the people involved.

This is a concrete example of an intervention. I describe others in my book, The

Incredible Fascination of Violence. We start two to three interventions every
week following these procedures. The reasons we are called of course vary.

Murray Stein: Thank you, Allan, for this ample and detailed example of a Jungian
approach and concrete intervention. I have one final question. Your book has been
translated into English. Has this led to interest in your work in the United States or
other English speaking countries? Have you extended your interventions across the
great waters?

Allan Guggenbühl: The reactions to my book and my work in the U.S. and Canada
were mostly favorable. I gave a seminar five years ago in Freeport, CT on my
approach and was invited to the APA congress in Toronto in summer '96. Traditional
psychologists liked the no-nonsense approach to the school classes and the fact that
we work with a clear set of goals. Some mainstream psychologists were a bit
puzzled by the mythodrama and the idea of relating horror stories in order to stop
violence. In non-Jungian circles, the idea that we need to integrate the shadow and
develop acceptable rituals of aggression is foreign. The reactions among Jungian
psychotherapists varied. Many Jungians, who typically work in consulting rooms with
one patient at the time, liked the idea of applying Jungian ideas to a field outside the
consultation room. Some felt they were not in a position to start a program like ours
and lacked some basic practical knowledge. We got requests from American and
Canadian psychologists and psychotherapists to organize a basic training program in
crisis intervention. Our institute (The Institute for Conflict Management and
Mythodrama in Zürich) will therefore offer a special training for psychologists and
psychotherapists from overseas next summer (2000). The program is called,
"Challenge the Alps," and will include an ethnological excursion into primordial
aspects of the Swiss alps (ghosts, rites, and the means to overcome fear in the

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