Deviant Talk Impedes Adolescent Treatment in Residential Settings

Deviant talk is a method of gaining attention from others, using sarcasm, jokes, or other tactics to evoke response. For adolescents, gaining the approval of peers is an important social behavior. For at risk youth, deviant talk as a method of gaining peer approval can be especially harmful when they are receiving treatment in residential facilities. “It has been linked to escalation in adolescent substance use, violence, and child antisocial behavior,” said A.L. Zakriski of Connecticut College, and lead author of a new study examining the detrimental effects of deviant talk. “Given the risk of harm, it is important for treatment programs to monitor deviancy training, especially when peer contact is high.”

In most treatment settings, observation is the primary tool for measuring deviancy training (deviant talk to solicit deviant behavior). Previous research has shown that leader-rated peer deviant training leads to increased aggression and decreased treatment improvement. Zakriski said, “In summary, evidence from community-based treatment programs for antisocial youth has raised concerns about deviancy training within residential treatment, but features of residential treatment and the youth it serves may moderate the risk of harm.”

Zakriski analyzed data from 239 adolescents across 26 various residential summer treatment programs using peer-nominated ratings of deviant behavior. The results revealed that deviant talk was directly linked to antisocial behaviors. “As anticipated, the relationship between early deviant talk and treatment response was influenced by individual and peer group levels of the behavior,” said Zakriski. “It was also positively related to externalizing, and negatively related to pro-social and internalizing behaviors assessed by peers and staff.” The more positively the deviant talk was received by peers, the more the negative behaviors and deviant training persisted. Teens whose deviant attempts were largely ignored were more receptive to treatment. Zakriski added, “From a prevention standpoint, it will be important to know earlier than 2 weeks into treatment who might engage in problematic levels of deviant talk, and in which groups these behaviors might be especially contagious.”

Zakrisky, Audrey L., Jack C. Wright, and Stephanie L. Cardoos. “Peer-Nominated Deviant Talk Within Residential Treatment: Individual and Group Influences on Treatment Response.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 39 (2011): 989-1000. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • roger


    October 31st, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    sometimes we all tend to do this even as adults,I know I have! Its human nature to gain others’ approval and seem great to others.but yes,if this becomes the basis of feeling good about yourself,and especially so for a youngster,that is a problem.

    there are a thousand different things for you to feel good about yourself,you don’t need to have your peers’ approval or try to impress them for it!

  • Stoney


    November 2nd, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    From what I have imagined and read about many residential treatment facilities for teens, they are more of a breeding ground for trouble than they are a hotbed for recovery and overcoming problems. Put that many kids with issues all together and I very easily see how all you know what could break loose! And add to that the fact that many of the “pros” there may or may not know what to do in these situations, then the trouble is only going to brew over. I am not saying that they are all like that, as I am sure that for the money you can find some excellent care. I myself have just always wondered about the effects of group therapy as a whole, much less with a group of teens who are already reluctant to be a valuable part of society.

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