Shelterwood students have access to a wide variety of therapies, and group therapy is integral to our clinical approach. In group therapy, the stage is set for transformation. “Students are learning from their peers, challenging unhealthy behavior, growing in community and supporting others,” says Kenny DeBlock, Substance Abuse Program Supervisor. “These groups can be such a powerful experience for our students.”
Students learn the value of accountability and equality through group therapy, plus practice positive peer relationships. “Students grow in accountability because they learn that not only do their actions matter, we are going to talk about them,” Kenny explains. “This is an opportunity for everyone to be seen as an equal and to have equal space to be challenged and to grow.”
Group therapy at Shelterwood takes place in two different formats: educational groups and processing groups. Educational groups are designed to help students gain information and build skills in a larger group setting. Centered on a specific topic, students learn strategies and methods to cope with challenges and move forward through their issues.
For example, a recent educational group led students in creating their own genogram, a visual display of a family tree. As they created their genograms, students visualized hereditary pattern. “Students got to share their genograms with the group,” Kenny says. “Students learn empathy and humanizing when they see that their peers may face the same struggles.” This format also allows the therapist to direct the conversation in a healthy way; for example, if several students show divorce in their genograms, the therapist can help them practice talking about common experiences in an assertive way.
Processing groups, in contrast, offer students an experiential application of what they are working on in therapy. Students learn verbal processing, how to express experiences to peers, sharing courageously, how to give and receive constructive feedback, healthy communication boundaries and more.
“As students process a certain topic with the group — for example, guilt and shame — the students recognize that other people have dealt with these issues too, and so they don’t feel as alone or isolated,” Kenny explains. “One especially cathartic aspect is that students can talk about their challenges and then experience real relational feedback from a variety of other students and other staff, so it’s not just sharing with one therapist or one parent. It’s a different experience than many of our kids have had.”
Distinctive to Shelterwood’s approach is the integration of staff mentors in group therapy settings. “The mentor staff have an opportunity to participate with students in group therapy,” Kenny says. Unlike conventional therapy relationships, students receive meaningful feedback from adults in the next stage of life. “You can find group therapy in many places, but this is something you will not find anywhere else.”
For many Shelterwood students, group therapy is a setting for real transformation. One student recently experienced a paradigm shift in how he viewed bullying, Kenny explains. At home, this student would bully his peers to try to win the favor of others.
“This student felt it was accepted, and even cool, to pick on other people,” Kenny says. “His peers at Shelterwood really challenged him on that behavior, and pointed out that while he thought bullying earned acceptance, he was in fact losing acceptance.”
“Ultimately, group therapy is important because we, as humans, live in community,” Kenny explains. “In group therapy, students recognize that because they are part of a greater community, their personal issues impact everyone. Groups foster a relational and positive peer environment. Students learn that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”