Supporting families to have the knowledge, skills and abilities to support their own kids and family, as well as, each other has always been at the core of ACMH’s vision and mission.
Parent Support Groups can provide a powerful source of support and a valuable resource for families with children and youth with mental health challenges.
Most of us remember ‘that moment’ ~
The first time we first met another parent of a child with severe mental health challenges. We remember how it felt to finally have the chance to talk to someone who really understood, someone who had also been there and done that. Parent to parent connections can be a powerful experience and an incredible source of hope!
If you would like to create a local support group in your community so other families have an opportunity to benefit from the unique connection that exists amongst families of children & youth with mental health challenges. ACMH can help!
We have placed some basic information below about Parent Support Groups and how you might go about starting one. You can also call the ACMH state office and we may be able to assist you or your community.
What Is a Parent Support Group?
A Parent Support Group is simply a group of parents with common life situations, experiences, and challenges that meet together to help themselves by helping each other. They meet to share ideas, resources, frustrations and successes.
Parent Support Groups also provide emotional support and a venue for sharing of information, strategies and resources. Support Groups also can provide an opportunity for families to learn new skills, set new goals, and develop into a strong group of family leaders in children’s mental health in their communities. Support Group Meetings provide an opportunity for parents to use their experience to help others and provide a place to socialize, connect and network, which can help to reduce isolation and loneliness.
Before you begin you will want to start by finding a small core group including one or two other parents who will work with you to do the initial planning. There is a lot of preparation work to be done even before you recruit new members or host your first meeting.
If you don’t know of anyone who would be willing to help you – you could check with your local Community Mental Health to see if they would let you post a flyer, or ask to speak with someone in Child and Family Services who might share your contact information with interested families. You could also ask counselors or social workers at local schools to share information.
Once you have a core group you will want to meet to start planning some important details of the group. You will need to agree for someone to be the group’s main contact person. The main contact person will be the one other interested families will call to get information, so they have to have an ability to help people feel welcome and comfortable to join the group. They also have to be able to answer general questions that prospective members may have about the group. You may need to do this role at first but later you will want to share work and give leadership roles to other members of the group.
The next thing your core group will have to do is figure out the ‘logistics’ for your first few meetings including where you will meet and when and for how long. You will also have to decide how you will find or recruit other members.
Finding A Meeting Space
You may meet at someone’s home or a local coffee shop at first but once you start to grow you are going to want to seek out a meeting space for your group. Finding a meeting place can sometimes be tricky, some of the key things you want to look for are: a space that is comfortable yet allows for some privacy. It should also be accessible for all members, have enough space for activities and allow you to bring in drinks and snacks. If you can locate somewhere along public transportation lines that can be helpful, as transportation is often a key barrier for people. If you live in a rural area with no public transportation a main road that is easy to find and readily plowed in the winter can be a good choice.
Recruiting New Members
It’s not as easy as it sounds! Word of mouth among families is often how you get new members but marketing the group will also help. Be sure to include the following information on any flyers about your group: name of your group, contact person, phone number, location and duration of first meeting and most importantly- a description of the group’s primary goal or purpose.
In addition to contacting or advertising at your local Community Mental Health, local schools or parent organizations, your small group could also consider hosting an informational meeting, advertise in local school or community newsletters, or consider having a table at a local informational fair.
Planning to Host Your First Gathering
Before your first meeting you and your core group will want to come up with the basic goals and purpose of your group and expectations of members. These may change over time with input from the larger group, but you will want to have some basics in place to share with prospective new members at your first gathering.
Your core group will also want to talk about how you will share leadership, how new members will get involved and if will there be a membership process. You will also need to have initial discussions about the structure of group meetings and the types of activities you will have. You will make final decisions about these things later with the larger group but you will want to be able give examples of what you envision the group to be.
At Your First Meeting
Start by welcoming everyone, introducing yourself and the core group.
Then describe the reason for creating the group and what you all hope it will provide for members.
Next take the time to have everyone introduce themselves. It is often helpful to help people with their introductions by listing out what you would like them to share on a large visible list.
After introductions you could allow time for everyone to share their interest in coming and what they hope to get out of the group.
Tips for making your first meeting a success:
- Focus on making it welcoming
- Don’t pressure anyone to do anything at the first meeting
- Use this opportunity for people to get involved and contributing- have sign up sheets, contact sheets
- Be sure to explain what the groups purpose is so people don’t leave unsure
- Make it fun and inviting so people want to come back:)
Additional Group Meeting Details to Decide Upon
As a larger group you will need to decide on additional details including the best time to meet and length of meetings, ground rules, structure of meetings and the types of activities you want to offer.
Ground Rules for the Group:
It is very helpful to decide right away how you will ‘be together’ or what the expectations of members of the group will be. These guidelines are called ‘Ground Rules’. Creating Ground Rules are an important piece for everyone to be a part of and agree upon as they help provide ‘guidelines’ of how the group will interact together.
It is helpful to create a few examples of ground rules in advance with your core group to share as a ‘starter’ during the ground rule activity with whole group. Consider using confidentiality or respect as your examples. It is also always a good idea to allow people to ‘pass’ during discussion as they may not feel comfortable or up to sharing on any given day or topic.
Ideas for Meeting Activities & Structure:
Activities You Might Want to Consider:
- Educational or Informational Opportunities
- Guest Lectures and Trainings on Special Topics
- Structured Discussions and Free or Open Support Group Time
- Game Night, Potluck Dinners and Movie & Book Nights
- Social Events and Outings
Tips on How to Structure the Group to Help Ensure Success:
- Have a plan!
- Offer variety by incorporating learning, free discussion, add in art, storytelling, poetry, music, or show and/or tell for example
- Stay organized and on task at every meeting
- Start and end on time, begin and end with important announcements
- Consider having an opening and closing activity
- Have an agenda and a list of discussion topic – give people input
- Give people the chance to participate at every meeting
- Mix up the structure even during discussion times
- Make time for fun and laughter!
- Self-help does not mean doing it all yourself!
Support Groups work best when everyone involved feel ownership and responsibility for the group. It is often easy to get caught in the trap of doing all of the work yourself, but if you can find a way to have everyone (who wants to) have a meaningful role in the group it will be much more successful!
Tasks or Roles to Share With Others:
- Formal positions or officers like a co-chair, secretary or treasurer
- People who lead meetings, or facilitate discussions
- Someone to facilitate introductions or icebreakers
- A person in charge of greeting new members and mentoring new people
- Someone who organizes snacks, does reminder calls, creates the agenda,
- Someone to arrange guest speakers
- People to be in charge of marketing/publicizing group activities,
As you can see there are lots of meaningful ways to get others involved. Individual members have unique gifts and talents and can helpful in a variety of ways. When considering who may be good to lead activities or facilitate the group discussions keep in mind that these roles require skills such being a good listener, being inclusive, and respectful, warm, genuine and calm even in the face of group conflict. These roles also require that someone have the skills to gently but firmly keep the discussion or activity on track.
Time will Bring New Challenges ~ Tips for Troubleshooting:
If Your Group Gets Into a ‘Rut’…
And as a result membership will drop off or members will seem less satisfied with the meetings. Some tips to keep the group fresh is to:
- Keep it productive; don’t let meetings turn into complaint sessions
- Maintain a balance between activities, discussion and learning opportunities
- Seek balance in your own participation- Allowing others to shine will keep everyone from coming to you as ‘the expert’ in the group; widen the support network of participants and allow future family leaders to develop!
Or how to keep the group going over time is another challenge. It seems that often, as soon as we have people in the group who are actively involved their kids get older or they move on etc. In order to address this problem try to keep welcoming new members, growing new leaders; and alternate roles, leadership, and make a plan to replace the parents who do move on.
Can also become an issue as your group grows. One way to help is to work to develop community partners and ‘champions’ who believe in and support your group. Your local community mental health may be a good place to start. You may also want to look into writing a small grant to help fund group activities.
Handling Group Conflict
You can be assured that somewhere along the way your group will experience conflict or other barriers you will have to navigate. Some common conflicts that come up in support groups include members who dominate the group or discussions, conflict between members and people who are always negative.
Tips for handling conflict or difficult members include starting by openly acknowledging that there is a problem. You may do this one-on-one if it involves an individual but if you have a group conflict happening you may want to address it openly and carefully right in the moment. You could start by just saying “it looks like we are having a bit of a conflict here”. Then you could go on to explain that conflict is natural and can be positive. Conflict can be an opportunity for the group to grow. Then you can take the opportunity for the group to try to work out the problem.
People are passionate about issues of parenting and often have strong views about the service systems connected to their family. Discussion about these types of issues can often bring up differing view and occasionally conflict. It is important to periodically talk about the fact that we are all individuals with differing experiences, values and backgrounds and that we can all learn from one another even when we disagree.
Remember to try to stay neutral and never ‘take sides’ during conflicts. It can also be helpful to go back and review the group’s Ground Rules every so often.
You will also need to evaluate how the group is going on an ongoing basis in order to make sure it keeps going and growing.
ACMH has supported Parent Support Groups over the years to:
- Be a source of support to local families
- Provide a place to connect families, share ideas, expertise and resources
- Create a ‘venue’ to empower families and give them leadership roles
- Develop a strong network of family leaders across Michigan
We wish you success as you create yours! If you need additional assistance or would like information about ACMH’s FREE Toolkit to Start or Sustain a Family Support Group contact ACMH Education Coordinator Terri Henrizi at firstname.lastname@example.org today!