Parents play a very active role in our Stepping Stones group therapy program. We commend our parents for their commitment to their children. In their involved roles here at In Step, parents work hard in their weekly coaching groups as they share issues and concerns with other parents, follow through on practice exercises and activities at home, and relay information and assignments to teachers; all in the name of encouraging social development in their children.
Our parent groups are vital in helping children acquire the skills they need to make and keep friends. Stepping Stones parents know that their efforts to model appropriate social behavior and offer feedback about desirable social behavior have not been successful up until their arrival at In Step. The children who attend Stepping Stones have complex social issues. Many of the kids struggle with basic interpersonal skills, such as achieving self-awareness. It is difficult for some of our group members to manage emotions effectively, empathize with the thoughts and feelings of others, and go with the flow in social situations. While we have always known that weekly group therapy for children is insufficient. It is an important first step. Even without concurrent parent groups, there are realistic benefits to group therapy with children:
1. Group members gain a feeling of acceptance that may not be present in other social settings;
2. They develop feelings of connectedness with other children; a sense they are not alone with their troubles;
3. Their self-esteem and sense of mastery improves;
4. Group members feel more hopeful about their social potential;
5. They become more self-aware and develop an ability to see the world through others’ eyes.
Group therapy, particularly short-term group therapy, is just not enough. The literature continues to stress the need for a multi-dimensional approach to social skills training in order to fully address the issue of generalization. The skills must be practiced between sessions; if possible, in the natural environment in which the social difficulties occur. The metaphor that we use with our Stepping Stones kids is that social skills is like taking piano lessons – if you don’t practice between lessons, you’ll be no further ahead by the next lesson. But, how many children practice a difficult skill without a parent urging them on in the background.
When we first added the parent group component to Stepping Stones in 1995, the parents appeared uncomfortable, even reluctant to participate. They expressed feelings of doubt about a parent group’s benefits. Perhaps, group members felt embarrassed about sharing openly in a room full of strangers. We had asked their children to open up and trust their fellow group members for years, but this was the first time we were asking their parents to do it. For many parents, looking into the mirror of the other parents in the group was uncomfortable, even anxiety provoking. Questions or comments like these were common: “What if my child picks up bad social behavior in the group?” “I don’t think my child’s social issues are the same as that child’s issues” or “How can these other parents understand what I am going through with my child? I just want the professional to tell me what to do”.
We have been part of quite an inspiring process with Stepping Stones parents as they commit to this relational journey with their kids. Rather than resist the hard work of social skills coaching, our Stepping Stones parents have pushed through their own feelings of discomfort. They have allowed themselves to slowly grow comfortable in their own groups. Any questions or concerns are voiced inside the group, and as they have begun to take a more active role in group, their feelings have dissipated. Parents are relaxed. They now greet each other warmly in the waiting room and take comfort in the support of the other parents in the group.
The stages of our program are put together like building blocks with each new set of skills drawing on and emphasizing previously learned social behaviors. Repetition and rehearsal are key factors in the transfer of learned abilities from one setting to another. Parents play a huge role in rehearsing already worked on skills in order to deepen a child’s understanding and to move the learning into the child’s muscle memory. Here, behaviors are more natural and automatic. Whether Stepping Stones parents play a recommended problem-solving game or practice ways to cope with teasing, they are learning to be “guides” rather than “solvers” in the social skills training process
As they see their children progress and develop skills, parents willingly practice homework exercises with their children at home in between groups. And, their kids are buoyed by their parents’ participation and dedication to the group work. Our goal is not to help children win popularity contests, but rather to provide them with an opportunity to learn skills that will help them make connections regardless of the social challenge. We offer families a simplified social map they can follow as the years unfold.