Designing Parent Support Groups

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“This group has been so helpful. I shared some ideas with a
friend at work, and she was really encouraged. If it wasn’t for the
parents’ group I wouldn’t have had anything to say,” the mother of
an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl said. Her beaming eyes and
broad smile expressed gratitude.

“This group taught me that I can be a resource to other
parents.” She dabbed a tear. “I didn’t think I had anything to
offer, but this group showed me I did.”

This single mother was thanking me for designing a 10-week
parent support group. It made a huge impact on her life. It gave
her friends, significance, support, and help with parenting.

Parents helping parents. That’s what it’s all about. As leaders
who minister to children, we’re in a unique position to minister to
parents. Yet all the ministry doesn’t have to come through us. We
can create opportunities for parents to minister to each other.

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Group Ingredients

As you consider starting a parent support group, remember that
parents need CHOICES — the seven elements of an effective small
group environment.

Confidentiality — Anything said in the
parents’ group stays in the group. Assure parents that nothing will
be discussed outside the group unless they give their
permission.

Honesty — What’s said needs to be an accurate
description of people’s feelings and thoughts. I tell parents, “If
we have doubts or fears, or don’t know something, we need to be
authentic about it.” Honesty creates an atmosphere for growth.

Openness — We encourage parents to be open to
each other and to what God wants to do with them and the group. The
most effective parent support group emphasizes prayer. Caution:
Avoid becoming a psychologically-oriented group. The purpose of a
parents’ group is support and prayer, not group therapy.

Involvement — Everyone is necessary to the
group. When a parent is absent or not present emotionally, it
affects the whole group. Each parent needs to make it a priority to
be in attendance, ready to focus on the group and to be personally
involved. In a parents’ group, parents assume responsibility for
their growth. Parents don’t blame others.

Care — Parents care for each other by holding
each other accountable to work on the issues discussed in the
group. Sometimes, knowing that someone’s going to ask about an area
provides the motivation to change. Parents often take the
initiative to demonstrate care through acts of kindness outside the
group time. “I was going through a difficult week when I received a
note from one of the moms in the group,” one support group member
told me recently. “It meant so much to me. It reminded me that I’m
not alone.”

Encouragement — The goal of a parents’ small
group is to encourage, build up, and affirm parents. Parents won’t
argue with or try to fix each other. It’s very important that
parents not offer unrequested advice to each other. Instead, they
seek to love each other unconditionally.

Sensitivity — In a support group, parents
practice empathy (putting myself in your shoes) and seek to really
hear, understand, and feel with each other.

Christian parents’ groups have the added benefit of being
sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. When parents come with
a commitment to understand each other and follow the leading of
God’s Spirit, powerful things can happen.

Leader Responsibilities

A parent support group can give so much to parents, but it takes
a good leader for that to happen. There are three basic areas that
a group leader needs to focus on. Pass on these tips to your
leaders.

1. Prayer — Commit to prayer in and outside
the group. One of our most effective leaders calls one or two
parents a night and offers to pray with them on the phone. By the
time the group meets the following week, she’s well connected with
each parent.

Keep a journal of requests and praises. Never force people to
pray. Rather, ask, “Who feels comfortable praying?” Some will pray
aloud. Others will offer to pray privately for another group
member.

2. Purpose — Keep the discussion focused and
positive. Lead parents through the discussion in a logical and
timely fashion. If a meeting requires preparation, come with
questions and a plan.
Don’t allow one parent’s personal concerns to dominate or sidetrack
the discussion. Short digressions might be helpful to the
conversation; use wisdom to know the difference.

3. Care — Demonstrate concern for the
well-being and growth of each parent during and between meetings.
Express care by:

  • Greeting parents as they arrive,
  • Making sure parents know each other’s names (introduce them and
    use nametags),
  • Arranging for refreshments with the host or hostess,
  • Asking questions about previously shared concerns, and
  • Calling parents during the week to see how things are
    going.

It’s difficult being a parent. The pressures of work and the
frantic pace of our culture create anxiety and fatigue. Parents
want to become more effective, but they aren’t sure how. A parents’
group can be an oasis for frazzled parents. “A place where everyone
knows your name and is glad you came.”


Parent Support Group Basics

The following are typical questions people have when starting
parent support groups.

  • How long does the group last? Most groups meet weekly for 90
    minutes for eight to 10 weeks.
  • Is a parents’ support group just for church people? No. Parents
    can invite friends and other parents who may not attend a church.
    Let parents know there will be prayer and discussion from the
    Bible.
  • What do you do at these groups? We start with refreshments,
    then open up dialogue with a safe sharing question, such as “How
    was your week?” Next, we have “check-in” time for parents to give
    brief reports on how they’re feeling about parenting. If they want
    to discuss an issue, they mention it at check-in. After each person
    has shared, we discuss some of the issues and pray for each
    other.
  • How do you let people know about a group? When we see children
    who are acting out or appear to be troubled, we make sure their
    parents get an invitation. Also, we advertise through our church
    media tools or send fliers home with children. We try to promote it
    as positive and fun, not corrective “group therapy.”

Tim Smith is a pastor to family life and the author of The
Relaxed Parent (Northfield Publishing). Please keep in mind that
phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to
change.

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