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Addressing common challenges in parent support groups

As a support group leader, you know that sometimes your group can be challenging. Whether it’s a difficult member or a sensitive topic, there are strategies that successful leaders have come to rely on.

Challenge: The “stuck” group

Groups sometimes get locked on a topic or issue, unable to move through it. Parent groups with members who are experiencing trauma, such as an allegation of abuse or neglect or a placement disruption, can sometimes get mired in those situations. It’s common for one family’s painful experience to engulf the group for several meetings.

Three steps toward resolution

  • Vent. Allow the individuals to take time to vent at the first meeting after the initial crisis.
  • Problem solve. Take time during the second meeting to work through the issues involved. The group can offer solutions to the situation.
  • Seek outside help. By the third meeting, pull those individuals aside and suggest that they find some outside assistance to help them manage the situation. Address the situation in a way that is both empathetic and directive: “You have been struggling with that for a while now and it’s really beyond the scope of what I can help you with. I think it is time for you to seek the help of an outside professional.”

The group is there to help individuals, but it also has a larger purpose and should be allowed to move forward toward its broader goals.

Challenge: Managing personalities

The first step to managing all personalities within the group is to establish clear, mutually agreed-upon ground rules—sometimes called group agreements—from the beginning. Have those group agreements visible at each meeting. Some groups will have the ground rules printed at the top of their sign-in sheet as a reminder and an indication of agreement as each member signs in. You can find more information about group agreements in the AdoptUSKids article, 4 Keys to Effective Meeting Facilitation for Support Group Leaders.

There are several personality types that typically pose challenges in groups.

The side-talker

Some people have a hard time focusing when others are talking and will chat with neighbors or make commentary to others around them. There are several effective strategies you can use in reining in those distracting side conversations:

  • Establish a group norm of using a talking stick or other talisman to indicate who has the floor.
  • Establish a light-hearted group norm of “one diva, one mic” that all agree and know they can cite when needed.
  • If you are standing, you might move to where the side conversation is happening, and put a gentle hand on the shoulder as a quiet signal. Make sure you know if the person has any triggers related to touch.
  • When the side conversations are predictably between certain members, try sitting between them in the circle.
  • If it keeps happening, talk to the people participating before the meeting. You could sit across from them and establish a signal to let them know to stop.

The over-talker

Some people come to groups because they really need a place to be heard and validated. When this results in them taking over the conversation, you want to be understanding in your approach.

  • Pull the member aside before or after the group and ask if they need some one-on-one time.
  • Give them some ideas about how they can self-monitor.
  • Establish a quiet signal with them in advance if they find it challenging to self-monitor.

One support group member who acknowledged that she struggled with this issue developed her own strategy. Naming it “3 then me,” she would let three other people talk before she would talk again. To remind herself, she would move pens or pencils one at a time as other people spoke.

The negative Nelly

There is no surer way to sabotage a support group than to allow it to become stuck in negativity. People come to support groups looking for hope, strategies, and solutions to difficult situations. The successful leader will work diligently to ensure that the group is that source and cut off the negativity.

  • Reframe by asking for solutions and encourage members to do so, as well.
  • Have a private conversation with the negative person, reconfirming the group goals of hope, strategies, and solutions, and ask for their cooperation.
  • Establish a group norm of having everyone share a positive parenting experience at the start of each meeting.
  • If things are not resolved, you may have to ask the member to take a break from the group for a period of time.

After you have tried these resolutions and the issues remain, it may be necessary to ask this person to find an outlet other than your support group. Remember, the group’s continued existence depends on satisfaction of the members!

The know-it-all

Your group is a place for everyone to share and learn from one another, but it can happen that one member has the answer for everything that is raised. Many times, their input is quite good, but it may also be that others feel intimidated about sharing their ideas. For shared learning to happen, there must be opportunities for multiple voices to be raised.

  • Follow their contributions by asking, “Does anyone have another idea or strategy to share?”
  • Institute a group norm of following the “3 then me” rule noted above.
  • Remind the group that you are committed to having multiple strategies for any challenge because there are no solutions that work for everyone.

If this behavior becomes too frequent, you will have to have a private conversation with this person. Thank them for all they bring to the group and acknowledge their expertise. Then ask for their help in elevating the confidence and contributions of the rest of the group and their cooperation in making room for others to come up with ideas.

The silent one

Not all who come to groups want to share; they are there to absorb and learn. Here are a few strategies for working with a group member who is extremely quiet.

  • Check in now and then to be sure they are doing okay in the group.
  • Give them opportunities to speak without forcing the issue.
  • Have a private conversation to ask if they are comfortable with being called on as a way to invite their input.

Once you have made the effort to welcome and include your quiet member, know that if they keep coming, you can be sure that they are getting what they need!

Challenge: Participation is shrinking

All groups go through periods of growth and decline. This can depend on any number of factors, many of which are out of your control. However, there are things you can do to ensure that your group is sustainable. Following the suggestions above to meet challenges head-on is step one. Members will not continue to attend a group that feels negative, hostile, hopeless, or aimless.

However, even the best run group can begin to flag if it isn’t growing with the needs of the members. As the concerns of your families and issues in your community change over time, the focus of the group should adapt as well. Steps to ensure that growth happens can include:

  • Completing a regular needs/interests survey of your membership and responding to the recommendations.
  • Recruiting new members on an ongoing basis; new members bring new energy and ideas.
  • Ensuring that you create an environment where new ideas are welcomed; they will invigorate your group!

Challenge: Burnout or compassion fatigue

Groups can also suffer if their leader isn’t feeling effective or addressing the challenges that arise. Remember that you are not only leading the group, but often carrying the issues that your members bring to it after the group has ended. You will only be as good a leader as your energy and spirit allow. Take care of yourself as you care for your group members.

To learn more about self-care, read the AdoptUSKids tip sheet or view the recorded webinar on secondary trauma and self-care for support group leaders.

As you face and conquer challenges in your group, please share your success stories with us so other leaders can benefit! You can email us at