There are many times during their life that people feel the need to reach out for assistance during a particularly rough time. During the middle school years this is even more prevalent. With puberty approaching and the awkward teenage years just ahead, there are plenty of times in which you find yourself feeling confused, frustrated and in need of support. With different types of support groups and group therapies, students are able to get their needs met and also find comfort within the company of their peers.
Support groups are offered today for a wide variety of reasons. Some are offered merely for common socialization, while other groups have a specific issue or problem that they are attempting to address. Regardless of the specific reason or opportunity, support groups and group therapies are able to gather together a variety of people with different viewpoints and perspectives that can give a different objective to the issues of the group. With these different objectives, many can find new solutions that they would have otherwise not thought of or even attempted. With the similar backgrounds and issues of the people within the group, other members are able to open up and find comfort in knowing that they are not alone and that there are others out there that are similar to them. The renowned MAYO clinic offers many different types of support groups and therapies and has found in them that: “Some people who have participated in support and bereavement groups say the experience gave them an emotional connection when they felt isolated from friends and family” (MAYO 2008). This is beneficial for those who are unable to find support from those around them during a difficult time, and that is no different for middle school students who feel that they are unable to connect to many of their family members and friends during a difficult time.
In middle school there are many issues that can arise that need attention, both immediate and in the near future. Support groups and group therapies can be formed for topics such as bullying, grief, anxiety, learning disorders or family issues among many others. Different students will find certain groups more helpful than others, depending on their needs. Some will join one, and some will join several different groups, as their lives may dictate their belonging in a variety of ways.
Support groups offer a different aspect to therapy than do individualized counseling. Whereas individualized counseling has the ability to get deep into the issues surrounding a single student and what may have led to that becoming what it is now, support groups and group therapies can offer a similar client base for those in need to relate to. The two can also work together in a beneficial way for the client: “the facilitator could request written permission from the parent and teen to have a conversation with the mental health professional about the advisability of the teen attending a grief group, while being treated for complicated mourning. This may be appropriate for the second form of complicated mourning,” (Perschy 2004). The students are able to see that they are not alone in what they are currently or have been feeling or experiencing and that there are many different ways to deal with the issues that are on the table. They are able to gain insight into why they feel the way that they do and get new ideas as to how to effectively deal with what is going on. “In a group setting, children make social comparisons to determine how their thoughts and behaviors compare with those of their peers,” (Kymissis and Halperin 1996). This can make a big difference in a student’s life, making the connection between the student and their peers in a completely different way.
Another aspect of support groups that is beneficial to middle school students and their parents is the cost. In the case of middle schools with a high poverty rate, many students do not have health insurance. Due to not having health insurance, individual counseling is not always available. At times it can be possible through community agencies for a free or reduced cost, but it is not always. Even when it is available, it’s not always possible to get there. Many families in poverty are unable to secure transportation or to take the time off of work to accompany their children to therapy sessions – making it hard or nearly impossible for the student to get the help that they need. When support groups occur during school time and also at the school the child attends, it makes it possible for these students to receive help that they otherwise may not have gotten.
The structure of support groups varies with what subjects and issues they are going to be covering. Some support groups, such as one in particular that focused on bullying within a middle school, opened up the sessions in such a way that they instituted a no blame approach to all who were involved: “This No Blame Approach addresses bullying by forming a support group of bullies and/or bystanders. Without apportioning blame, it uses a problem-solving approach, giving responsibility to the group to solve the problem and to report back at a subsequent review meeting. In addition, the victim is asked whether there has been improvement in his/her situation,” (Young 1998). Other support groups have found it helpful to have a pre-interview session before the first meeting of the group between a counselor/social worker and the individual participant where the purpose of the group is outlined for the interested student and the needs of said student are also analyzed to insure that they will be a good fit within the group. This is currently happening in two schools in North Carolina, both a middle school and an elementary school, who incorporated the pre-interview process: “During this interview, the SAP counselor explains the nature of support groups, the focus of particular groups, the procedures involved in group participation, and informed consent and confidentiality,” (Rainey, Hensley and Crutchfield 1997). This helps the interested student to become more at ease before the first meeting of the support group, as many students have never before been involved in a group support setting, and some have even not been involved in any type of individual counseling. This helps to eliminate anxiety surrounding the event, as they know what to expect and whether or not the group is the experience that they are looking to get.
With many school support groups occurring during school time, it makes the amount of time that the group meets a slight issue. With younger children, it makes more sense to go for a shorter amount of time, as their attention spans are not as long as adults and teenagers. However, at the middle school and high school level students are able to meet for a longer period of time and therefore are able to accomplish more during their time together. At the same two schools in North Carolina that have incorporated the pre-interview process, they have also instituted specific time intervals for their elementary and middle schools: “Support groups at elementary schools are scheduled for one 45-min session each week. Middle school support groups meet on a weekly basis for one class period (50 min),” (Rainey, Hensley and Crutchfield 1997). Although the time period is of a very small difference, in this case just five minutes, that difference can mean a great deal to those in the support group itself. Other cases have reported middle school group sessions going as long as ninety minutes at a time.
In this highly technological day and age, there is another aspect to support groups. For those students who do not have access to individualized counseling and who would benefit from a support group setting, there are also now online support groups. This not only helps the students who don’t have the ability to get transportation to local individual counseling or local support groups, but also aids those students whose schools don’t offer the type of assistance that they need in addition to with those who are not financially capable of paying for group sessions. Online support groups are typically free and are offered through many different online sources. Many will assign you a “cyber buddy” who will make it their responsibility to check up on you throughout the week and see how you are doing. Many groups have an online chat option where you can sit in your own home, library or internet cafe and chat with people around the world who have similar experiences as you do. They also offer message boards and forums where you can post questions that you may have when nobody is utilizing the chat option. Therefore, when someone else gets on they may be able to respond to your question or need and you don’t have to wait for the next meeting or chat to get assistance. The downside to this new phenomenon of online support and therapy groups is that because it is relatively new it does not have any research to support its future benefits. Unlike in-person support groups, online support groups have only been around for a few years and have therefore not had a substantial amount of time to gather collective data that analyzes its usefulness. Its counterpart, in-person support groups and group therapy have proven the test of time and have shown that: “both group and individual psychotherapy benefit about 85% of the patients who participate in them. Ideally, patients leave with a better understanding and acceptance of themselves, and stronger interpersonal and coping skills. Some individuals continue in therapy after the group disbands, either individually or in another group setting,” (Sternberg 2007). Another small downfall of online support groups is that they are not completely anonymous. Although you may feel comfortable with your safety online, if you use a public computer others may be able to view your past history. If you use a family computer, they may be able to go back and see what is going on with you. One more downfall is that in the case of those families that are in poverty, many may not have a computer or internet access to be able to involve themselves in the support groups. Although libraries offer computers free for use, some don’t feel comfortable in that situation and are still left with no help during their time of need.
In order to get the full experience of a group therapy or support group situation, students should try to open up within the group setting. However, if they are uncomfortable, as many middle school students are during the incredibly awkward period of their life, they can just listen to other members of the group. This can still prove to be helpful, as they are still comparing their experiences to those of the people around them and gathering insight and ideas to relate back to themselves.
Many issues in life come up where people feel the need to reach out for assistance. During the middle school years, when student’s lives are rapidly changing due to puberty and the upcoming teenage years, group therapy and support groups can be a major help in dealing with the pressing issues that come and go, along with long-standing problems that need attention. Along with all those factors, there are financial and transportation aspects that make support groups within a school setting even more beneficial to its students. Support groups and group therapies are of great benefit to all who need them and help to alleviate stress and pain within the individual student in particular.
Kymissis, P, & Halperin, D (1996). Group Therapy with Children and Adolescents.American Psychiatric Publishing.
MAYO Clinic, (2008). MAYO Clinic. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Benefits of Support Groups Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.org/support-groups/benefits.html
Perschy, Mary (2004). Helping Teens Work Through Grief. Routledge.
Rainey, L, Hensley, F, & Crutchfield, L (1997). Implementation of Support Groups in Elementary and Middle School Support Programs. Professional School Counseling. 1, 36-40.
Sternberg, Barbara Group Therapy. (2007). Group Therapy – Definition, Purpose, Description, Results. In Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders [Web]. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Group-therapy.html
Young, Sue (1998).The Support Group Approach to Bullying in Schools. Educational Psychology in Practice. 14, 32-39.