Designing Parent Support Groups
"Parents helping parents. That's what it's all about," says Tim Smith.
By Tim Smith
Family Ministry Opportunities:
“This group has been so helpful. I shared some ideas with a friend at work, and she was really encouraged. If it weren’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.
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.
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).