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 revealing their deepest feelings and darkest secrets to people they just met days, hours, or even minutes ago. For many teens, the idea of allowing themselves to be truly seen feels scary. However, group therapy is a supportive and compassionate forum in which teens can start letting their walls down and sharing their stories with others.
Having a group of peers you trust is a significant factor in increasing our ability to endure life’s challenges. This is true for teens who deal with everyday conflicts, like peer pressure and friend drama, but especially for those who are facing mental health and substance abuse issues.
Being part of a supportive group of peers who can identify with how they feel, guided by a trained professional to help process difficult events and emotions, can accelerate healing.
Connecting with Themselves
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. While individual and family therapy are undeniably effective in developing healthy self-esteem, studies show that those who engage in teen group therapy ultimately communicate about their fears and difficult feelings more spontaneously and freely, and build community connections.
Here are two tools that can help you get the most out of the teen group therapy experience.
- 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.
- Keep a “thought challenge” notebook. They can use these notes 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 troublesome 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 use in the same scenarios.
Building Community Connections
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, another member of the group may pose as the sibling. Next, the therapist facilitating the group will guide the teen through different ways of expressing their feelings, setting boundaries, and resolving conflict.
Moreover, if teens feel that they aren’t being truly heard by family or friends, their emotional urgency to get a point across can escalate to a degree that seems unnecessary to observers, resulting in outbursts of anger or depressive episodes. In a group therapy setting, however, their reactions are more likely to be understood.
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.
Connecting with the Larger World
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.
Group therapy benefits also include teaching teens learn 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. In addition, they have a limited amount of time in which to speak during a session. 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.
Group cohesion—when a group works in unity toward a shared goal—is another skill 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.
Learning to Love Themselves
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.
Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 1188.
Hu Li Za Zhi. 2007 Oct;54(5):82-7.