Parents often have a hard time getting more than one-word answers out of their teens. So they might find it difficult to imagine those same adolescents in a teen group therapy session, revealing their deepest feelings and darkest secrets to people they just met days, hours, or even minutes ago.
It’s true that for many teens, the idea of allowing themselves to be truly seen feels scary. However, group therapy is a supportive and safe space in which teens can start letting their walls down and sharing their stories with others, guided by a trained clinical professional who can help process difficult events and emotions. Building connection and community is one of the biggest benefits of teen group therapy.
While individual therapy and family therapy are essential parts of an adolescent treatment program, there are specific advantages of group therapy for teens. Research shows that having a trusted group of peers is a significant factor in increasing the ability to endure life’s challenges. For teens who are facing mental health and substance abuse issues, such as anxiety, depression and trauma, being part of a supportive group of peers who understand how they feel can accelerate healing.
What Is Group Therapy?
Group therapy is exactly what it sounds like: therapy done in a group. But what does that look like and when was it invented? Joseph Hersey Pratt is known as father of group therapy. He pioneered the use of this modality in the early 20th century. Pratt brought tuberculosis patients patients together to discuss their common problems, and subsequently observed the positive emotional effects they experienced.
Following Pratt’s discovery, group therapy techniques were used with other specific populations. Facilitators began to offer children’s therapy groups, groups for prison inmates, group therapy for people with alcohol use disorder, and group sessions for military veterans. Today, group therapy is used to treat trauma and many other mental health and co-occurring disorders.
Unlike support groups, group therapy activities are always facilitated by a mental health professional. Teen group therapy can take place in a residential or outpatient setting, or in a community mental health setting. Groups are typically limited to a small number of participants, who agree to maintain confidentiality. Hence, what’s shared in group therapy sessions isn’t talked about outside the group. One of the most important benefits of group therapy benefits is the trust that is created among participants.
How Teen Group Therapy Works
Teen group therapy can focus on a wide range of issues, including substance abuse, behavioral issues, and relationships with parents or peers. Sometimes group therapy sessions focus on practicing coping or communication skills. Teens share their personal experiences openly and honestly. In turn, other group members offer nonjudgmental attention and caring to others in need of support.
There are various group therapy models. Group therapy activities for teens can focus on education, prevention, and/or therapeutic goals. In psychoeducational groups, the therapist offers information to help adolescents better understand and cope with their mental health disorder. In process-oriented group therapy sessions, the therapist facilitates group discussion and sharing among participants.
Types of Teen Group Therapy Modalities
Within the categories of teen group therapy, different group therapy techniques and modalities may be used, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps teens shift distorted thinking patterns and replace them with healthier responses and behaviors
- Interpersonal groups, exploring relationships and building social skills and communication skills
- Skill development, in which help teens learn tools for emotion regulation and healthy coping strategies for navigating the triggers and symptoms of their mental health conditions
- Experiential group therapy for teens, such as creative arts therapy, Adventure Therapy, and Mixed Martial Arts.
What Happens in a Teen Group Therapy Session?
Depending on the group and setting, an initial group therapy session might start with each participant introducing themselves and sharing a bit of their story. Teens might talk about the challenges they have faced and what they are hoping to achieve in group therapy.
As the group continues over time, the session might include each teen talking about the goals they have reached since the last time the group met. Or they might talk about a difficult moment or setback. Group therapy techniques may include role-playing an interaction or conversation with someone else in the group, guided by the group therapist.
Some group therapy for adolescents is highly structured, with the facilitator teaching tools and skills. In experiential group sessions held outdoors or in an art studio or yoga room, the format is more flexible in response to the activity.
How Group Therapy for Teens Enhances Self-Esteem
Finding validation in others’ experiences is a great way to get to know yourself. Many teens struggle with so-called “identity grabbing,” as they try to fit in and figure out who they really are. It may seem as if a teen suddenly has a new personality, friend group, or clothing style on a regular basis. There are often parts of themselves they feel they need to hide—parts they perceive to be broken or inherently bad.
When teens come to realize that they aren’t alone, and that their experiences are not as unique and isolating as they believe, they begin to feel more empowered and connected. Studies show that group therapy for adolescents ultimately helps teens communicate about their fears and difficult feelings more spontaneously and freely, and build community connections.
Having specific tools to work with is one of the advantages of group therapy for teens. For example, teens can make an “asset list.” When someone gives them a compliment or says something nice about them, they can write it down. Subsequently, they can look back on this list for positive affirmation when they’re feeling down and the negative voice in their head is threatening to take over.
A Safe Space to Practice Healthy Coping Strategies
When teens feel frustrated, unseen, or unheard, their emotional urgency can escalate to an intense degree. This anger and hurt can result in outbursts of anger or withdrawn depressive episodes. In a group setting, teens receive understanding and validation from peers who also experience these feelings. Just as important, a facilitator offers specialized group therapy activities for teens that help them cope with these difficult emotions.
For example, healthy coping skills explored in group therapy might include reframing negative thoughts and using the breath to stay calm. Assigned activities for group therapy could include keeping a “thought challenge” notebook that helps with coping skills and emotion regulation. Teens write in the journal to track how their body feels (hot, sweaty, tingly, cold, tense, etc.) when they experience negative thoughts. that spiral into rumination (repetitively going over a thought or problem).
Connecting the mind and body is a critical step in being able to identify difficult feelings as they occur, rather than after the wave of emotion has washed over them and catalyzed a reaction. Teens can also get feedback from their peers during sessions on what skills they might use in the same scenarios.
Building Relationship Skills in Teen Group Therapy
Group therapy techniques expand teen’s peer support systems beyond their existing circle of friends, who may not have the tolerance, experience, or knowledge to be helpful, despite good intentions. Regularly engaging in open dialogue in an environment that is free of judgment creates an emotional space for gentle and loving feedback, and provides a trustworthy sounding board for teens.
Group therapy benefits also include opportunities for role-playing difficult or triggering conversations. For example, if a teen is constantly at odds with one of their siblings or other family members, another member of the group may pose as that family member. Next, the therapist facilitating the group will guide the teen through different ways of expressing their feelings, setting boundaries, and resolving conflict.
Teen group therapy also reinforces effective interpersonal skills teens may be learning in other treatment modalities, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Learning to be present and truly listen (instead of listening while planning what you’re going to say next) is a difficult skill that requires practice. The more a teen has opportunities to try it, the faster they will replace communication habits that don’t serve them, such as chronically interrupting or not absorbing direction or instruction.
Group Therapy for Rebuilding Trust After Trauma
The world can be a terrifying place for teens, especially those with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood or during the teen years, including violence, abuse, or neglect. Children’s therapy groups and teen group therapy can help young people rebuild the trust that is destroyed due to childhood trauma.
Boundaries are often disrupted as a result of trauma in early life. To address this, group therapy benefits include teaching teens how to identify when it’s appropriate to trust someone. While confidentiality is encouraged in group therapy settings, it’s up to each teen to discern what and how much information is appropriate to share with the group.
During group therapy sessions, teens have a limited amount of time in which to speak. Hence, group therapy allows them to tell their stories chapter by chapter, while building healthy attachment behaviors that will transfer to life outside of treatment.
The Importance of Group Cohesion in Teen Therapy Sessions
Group cohesion—when a group works in unity toward a shared goal—is another experience that will carry adolescents through difficult times. Group cohesion is often considered an essential factor in successful treatment. Studies have found that high cohesion groups reach their goals more readily, and group members feel more secure about their functions and contributions. Therefore, when teens have difficulty with groups in academic or workplace settings, they can use their group cohesion skills to find a way to work with others and treat everyone with respect.
For some teenagers, offering love and compassion to others is the first step in being able to love themselves. Teens who actively engage in teen group therapy learn that using their experience to help others is empowering and validating. It gives meaning and purpose to their struggles, and supports them along the path to sustainable healing.
Teen Group Therapy at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, group therapy for adolescents is one of a variety of evidence-based clinical modalities included in each teen’s tailored treatment plan. Whether they are in residential or outpatient treatment, teens will experience the benefits of group therapy in addition to individual therapy and family therapy. In general, our clients attend several teen group therapy sessions each week.
While some group therapy activities for teens take place with participants seated in a room with the facilitator, teen group therapy can also take the form of art or music therapy, Adventure Therapy, yoga, and meditation (depending on location). No matter which teen therapies they are participating in, clients work together and with trained facilitators to build skills, overcome obstacles, and create collaborative and caring environment. Ultimately, teen group therapy supports adolescents to grow into caring, compassionate, and self-aware young adults.
5 Key Takeaways
- Group therapy provides a supportive and safe space in which teens can start letting their walls down and sharing their stories with others. Sessions are guided by a trained clinical professional who can help process difficult events and emotions.
- Group therapy activities for teens can focus on education, prevention, and/or therapeutic goals. Group therapy types include psychoeducational groups offering information and skills; and process-oriented group therapy, in which the therapist facilitates group discussion and sharing among participants.
- Some group therapy for adolescents is highly structured, with the facilitator teaching tools and skills. In experiential group sessions held outdoors or in an art studio or yoga room, the format is more flexible in response to the activity.
- The benefits of group therapy include building self-esteem, relationship skills, healthy coping strategies, and a strong peer community.
- At Newport Academy, group therapy for adolescents is one of a variety of evidence-based clinical modalities included in each teen’s tailored treatment plan.
Frequently Asked Questions About Teen Group Therapy
Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 1188.
Hu Li Za Zhi. 2007 Oct;54(5):82-7.