It’s All About Beginnings!

Easing in to kids' groups

“I don’t want to be here. It’s going to be boring. My mom told me I had to talk about my dad’s drinking and my feelings all day. I’d rather be anywhere but here.”

These words were uttered by Joseph, age nine, as he walked into one of my groups. Within the first few minutes, with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, he had made up his mind. The only thing I could do was to acknowledge his feelings and make some guarantees.

I promised Joseph that he would not be bored. I explained that this was a group for kids, which meant that having fun was a top priority. I also assured him that it was entirely his decision to share his feelings; nobody would make him talk about anything he didn’t want to. Would he at least give it a shot?

Joseph looked skeptical, but was willing to make a deal. I suggested that he try it out and stay for at least the first hour. If he still felt the same way after that time, he could leave the group, no questions asked. He agreed to these terms.

Where did we go from here? For Joseph, this group experience was not off to a pleasant start.

Children are often reluctant participants in support groups or programs. Parents (or other caregivers) make the choice to enroll their kids, and may then struggle with explaining the process. Difficult topics, such as familial addiction, may sound overwhelming. Even the concept of a ‘support group’ is difficult for a young child to understand. Adding to this discomfort is the fact that many youngsters have not had positive experiences in educational or group settings.

A “successful beginning” is crucial. The first hour of the first session can determine whether or not your young participants will fully engage in the process. Kids use this time to quickly form an opinion on whether or not they can trust you and if they should stick around for the long haul.

What can we do as professionals to create a positive beginning and engaging environment for the children we work with? Follow these guidelines to get off to a good start:

  • Greet them by name.

    Make a point of reviewing the names of all of the participants prior to their walking through the door. If you have not met them before but have a general idea of their age, gender and who will be accompanying them, you can welcome them by name as they come in. Children (and parents) will feel valued and important.
  • Allow them join the group at their own pace.

    Don't get wrapped up in your own ego when you have a child who doesn't want to participate at first. It’s not a failure. It's okay—and normal. That's what icebreaker games are for. It's difficult for a child to stay defiantly seated in a corner when everyone else is having fun. Let them be, give them space, and when they feel safe, they'll join in.
  • Make it playful and fun!

    If you aren't prepared for play, or don't think it's important, then don't work with kids. Have a slew of games ready for the first group. Make it so engaging that kids want to come back.
  • Ease into the serious stuff.

    Do not dive right into a difficult topic (like addiction) within the first ten minutes. It’s just plain scary, and you will almost physically see the defensive walls go up. This is especially important in a closed group where children are just meeting each other (and you) for the first time. Have some fun first and trust will be built. When children feel that they know you and their peers a little better, they will be more comfortable, relaxed and open to talking.
  • Be inclusive without being pushy.

    Give a reluctant child space to remain on the periphery, but every once in a while invite them back in. Let this person know that the whole group wants them to be involved. Be mindful of kids who are quiet or not getting a turn. Make sure everyone has a chance to be a participant.
  • Be in charge without being authoritarian.

    Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you have a kids group and you want to have fun with them, it means that they are in charge. They're not. They don't want to be. Establish safety by directing the games, the pace and the rules in a gentle, respectful way.
  • Make them feel special.

    There are so many ways to do this. Remind them that while they are with you, they are VIPs. Compliment individual kids and the group as a whole. Let them know that the time you spend with them is going to be a mix of learning, talking, and lots of fun. Listen to them, play with them and keep your promises.

Beginnings are important. Skilled facilitators are aware of this and place valuable time and energy into creating a positive first impression.

As for Joseph, he stayed.

After 15 minutes of sitting in the corner, watching 11 other laughing kids play icebreaker games, he could no longer resist. Joseph joined the group, taking his seat in the circle. He made friends and connected with his peers, sharing laughter and tears as they discussed the addiction problems in their families. He quickly learned that the adult facilitators could be trusted to keep promises, maintain safety and create a fun and engaging environment.

After that first day, Joseph eagerly completed all of the sessions. He was one of the first to share his feelings about his dad’s addiction, and one of the last to reluctantly leave after our final session.

A strong start establishes a solid foundation that leads to a sense of belonging and connection within a newly formed group. For Joseph, a child who had lost trust in many of the adults in his life, it was this “beginning” that made all of the difference.

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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