The Advantages of Group Therapy for Teens

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As Sentier’s Client Care Coordinator, I have a unique view into the therapy world. This includes a lot of emails and phone calls to get teenagers set up with individual sessions and/or group therapy, but once that step is done, I also get a peek into the beautiful environments that are created by therapy groups when they meet in our building. 

How do I know that the Middle School LGBTQIA+ Support Group is meeting? The hot chocolate packets begin to run low, feet stomp back and forth down the hallway, and the sound of heated conversation, laughter, and excitement seeps under the door of the group room. Once they’ve left, the snack basket is empty and quiet returns, but the joyful energy of a group of teens connecting, supporting, and learning from one another lingers in the office.

What about Teen Calm, a group to help treat anxiety disorders? As meeting time approaches, soft music drifts out of the group room and the group facilitator’s soothing voice greets group members as they arrive. The white board shows the day’s topic: Mindfulness, Anxiety in the Brain, Anxiety in the Physical Body, etc. Fortunately, I am no longer a teenager with anxiety, but even working in the same building as this group lowers my heart rate.

During group sessions, the waiting room is also more full than usual, with parents using downtime to read a magazine, scroll on their phone, catch up on emails, or make a cup of coffee or tea… or hot chocolate, if there’s any left!

As a Client Care Coordinator and many people’s first point of contact when starting therapy, parents, teachers, and other therapists reach out to me all the time about group opportunities for teens – and it makes sense! Being a teenager is hard, and navigating the ups and downs of adolescence is a lot better when you know you’re not alone.

Developing a healthy sense of self, emotion regulation skills, and social skills and connections can help teens through difficult moments in their lives. Individual therapy sessions can help teen gain some of those things, but group therapy is another great option for teens to better be able to learn, connect, and thrive through it all. After all, peer relationships are a pinnacle of the developmental stage adolescents are in, so why not build some of those connections in the safe environment of a therapy program with other teens who get it!

Understanding Group Therapy

What is Group Therapy?

Group therapy is just what it sounds like. A group of individuals with similar identities, mental health issues/mental health disorders or backgrounds, or support needs, meeting regularly for group therapy sessions with a trained mental health professional to work through different issues, learn coping skills, and build community in a group setting.

There are several different kinds of therapy groups, including Pyschoeducation groups, Skills groups, and Processing groups.

  • Psychoeducation groups, such as Sentier’s Teen Calm group, provide group members with information about a topic, in this case anxiety, so that they can better understand and manage their mental health. Teen Calm members learn about where anxiety comes from, what it does to the body, and how to identify and manage it. Other examples of Psychoeducation groups could include depression management groups, substance abuse groups, and more. teenfriendship blog
  • Skills groups, such as Sentier’s Teen Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Skills group, draw from a specific therapy modalities or forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to teach well researched and effective skills for emotion regulation and distress tolerance. Other skills groups include trauma management groups, social skills groups, yoga/meditation groups, and more.
  • Process groups, such as Sentier’s Teen LGBTQIA+ Support Group, are a less structured environment than Psychoeducation or Skills groups and discussion topics and activities are often chosen by the facilitator and the group members together. Process groups are oriented around a certain identity or theme and a big part of their purpose is social initiative; to build community. Examples of process groups include grief support groups, military spouse groups, and more.

Why is it suitable for Teens?

There are many reasons why group therapy is a great fit for teens. For teens who don’t feel comfortable or ready to do individual therapy or family therapy, group therapy can be a great way for them to dip their toes into the therapy world and get used to being around a mental health professional without the pressure of talking about themselves 1:1 with an adult they don’t know very well.

Additionally, social dynamics are a huge part of what makes teenager-hood so formative, and building healthy friendships and supporting peers through therapy activities in a therapy group can model healthy behaviors outside of the group. Teens are social creatures, and they may not want to talk to their parents about their feelings, so expressing feelings towards other teens is often preferable. In group therapy, the skilled group therapist can address social situations or dynamics such as negative peer pressure in real time and provide a safe place for teens to process what happened.

Social anxiety resulting in isolated teens is a common experience today. While it may feel strange at first for teens to be in a group therapy setting, members soon realize that they are not the only one feeling the things that they are, and that it is normal to go through a wide range of things at this stage in life. For example, in Teen Calm, Sentier’s anxiety group, facilitator Sarah Souder-Johnson, M.Ed., LPCC notices that “when you work on understanding and calming your nervous system while developing new skills in the presence of others, connections form naturally. There is very little more powerful than feeling, “I am not alone.” Receiving advice or thoughts from peers is also a powerful thing at a time in life when adult figures can feel stifling or intrusive.

The Social Dimension of Group Therapy

Developing Essential Social Skills and Self Esteem

Group therapy helps teens enhance their empathy and communication skills so that they can bring those things into their daily life outside of group. Being in a group setting allows teens to communicate openly and in a supportive environment and learn from peer interaction. Group facilitators use sense of humor at times as well as different activities and discussion techniques to encourage members to open up and practice sharing, taking turns, using active listening, providing constructive feedback, and observing body language and other social behaviors.

Building Emotional Support Networks

Gaining validation and understanding from peers  can be quite impactful. It can be hard to feel comfortable talking about mental health conditions and sharing emotions as a teenager when outside social or academic pressure can push them towards feeling insecure or ashamed. In group therapy, teens can go beyond those harmful expectations to validate and accept one another. Speaking in a group also helps teens gain a better sense of self awareness and increase feelings of social confidence. Hearing from others helps teens think more critically about what they feel and believe and can even help teens avoid negative peer pressure. 

emotional teenage students looking excited in laptop

Creating a sense of belonging and community

At Sentier, we believe strongly in the importance of community and the ripple effects of feeling a sense of belonging. In individual therapy, clients often express feelings of isolation or loneliness, and that can be a sign for a therapist that group therapy may be a beneficial supplement. “Groups really are a magical place,” says Tana Welter, MSW, LICSW and facilitator of Sentier’s Teen DBT Skills group. “A lot of teens have anxiety in the beginning, not sure what to expect or what it will look like, but once they get in that space with other peers going through similar things, it can feel so supportive and encouraging! Having a shared experience like a therapy group can really be life changing.”

Addressing Teen Challenges Through Group Therapy

Overcoming Stigma and Promoting Acceptance

There is something powerful about being in a peer community with folks who may have a more acute understanding of what you are going through and being able to express what you are feeling in that setting. In a time of life where expressing emotions or encouraging processing of feelings might be absent in a lot of spaces, group therapy is great to normalize talking about and prioritizing mental health.

Fostering Acceptance

In a group therapy setting, inevitably teens will find themselves interacting with folks who they share identities, interests, or backgrounds with, as well as folks who they may have little in common with in those areas. Teens may seek out friendships outside of the therapy world with people they share interests with, but in group therapy, being around people who have different interests and experiences is a positive environment to challenge teens to practice acceptance and learn from others.

Empowering Teens with Problem-Solving Skills

In group settings, conflict is inevitable, but in a group therapy setting, that conflict won’t be pushed under the rug or left hanging unresolved. Having peers around them to provide support as well as a skilled therapist/trusted adult to help teens navigate misunderstandings and conflict can resolve in a positive group experience where folks feel heard and safe.

Group decision making is also an important aspect of group therapy. Facilitators are there to help guide discussions and activities, but the group members also have a big role in how they want the group to look, and providing choice to teens can be powerful when in school or at home there are less opportunities for them to make their own choices. “I ask for group members’ input on activities and topics because it’s far more impactful if they are doing something that they enjoy or see as valuable,” says Maggie Devorak, MS, LMFT, when asked about facilitating LGBTQIA+ Support Groups and the Teen Gaming Group. 

Broader Impacts of Group Therapy

Beyond Individual Growth: Family and Benefits

Beyond helping peer relationships, group therapy can help teens improve communication within their family. Teens aren’t always ready to talk to their parents about what they are feeling, but with a safe space to explain and receive feedback about things happening at home, teens can process difficulties at home and practice ways to deal with them. Sometimes parents report that teens improve their ability to navigate family conflict at home after attending group therapy. 

Taking the Next Steps: Embracing Group Therapy for Your Teen

Discovering a Path to Growth and Resilienceyoga therapy class, concept

Teen group therapy is an effective form of psychotherapy and support for teens. According to one analysis of 56 studies over two decades, adolescents participating in group therapy were coping better than 73% of teens who were not in this kind of therapeutic program. 

You know how amazing your teen is even though they may be struggling to communicate or connect. You know how important it is for them to know that they are not alone, even though they may not feel that. Group therapy is a resource that can help teens through a tumultuous, formative, exciting, and scary time and help them see their worth and that they are part of a community in the company of peers who understand. 

For more information about Sentier’s groups for teens, check out our website or email Sentier’s Client Care Coordinator Ellie at [email protected]

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