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Bringing joy to the support group experience

Support group leader in foreground smiling
Support group leader in foreground smiling.

Parents and caregivers looking for emotional support, validation, and guidance bring some very challenging situations to support groups. Without mindful attention from the group’s leader, it can be easy for a group to become bogged down in negativity.

As a leader, you can create a culture where members are encouraged to meet their challenges with hopefulness and make your group a place where joy can grow and thrive.

At first, you may find that some group members are resistant to the idea that there is joy in their lives, due to their own secondary trauma and exhaustion. However, over time this focus on joy will become the reason they return month after month.

Defining joy

Before talking about how to bring joy into the group itself, it’s important to understand the difference between happiness and joy.

Happiness is an emotion that brings bursts of intense pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction, while joyfulness is a stronger, longer-term state that results in feelings of inner peace and contentment.

Joy is a choice. It’s not only an emotion, as happiness is, but is also an attitude we adopt and a way we look at and interact with our world. Because joy is a choice we make, we have the ability to make that choice in spite of any challenges that come our way!

Compassion International adds some other distinctions between the two, including:

  • While happiness reacts, joy transcends.
  • While happiness comes and goes blithely along its way, joy is a practice and a behavior. Joy is deliberate and intentional.
  • Joy endures hardship and trials and connects with meaning and purpose.
  • A person pursues happiness but chooses joy.

We know that so many of our families come to our groups because they are feeling hopeless and need validation, belonging, and the wisdom of others to help them go on. Joy is a light that can fill them with hope.

Four pillars of meaning

We cannot have a discussion about joy in the support group without also acknowledging that it is a place where people bring their own trauma and the effects of their children’s trauma in their search for solutions and relief. We also know that healing from trauma happens in the context of relationships and in finding meaning in those connections.

In her TED Talk, “There’s more to life than being happy,” Emily Esfahani Smith identifies the four pillars of meaning and connects them to a life lived with joy:

  1. Belonging comes from being in relationships where you are valued for who you are rather than who you could be, or who the other person wants to make you. It is not conditional; true belonging springs from love.
  2. Purpose refers less to what you want, but rather to what you give. It is how we contribute and feel needed.
  3. Transcendence is that feeling you get when you feel connected to a higher reality or sense of spirit. Transcendent experiences can change you, elevate you somehow, and connect you in a deeper way to the world around you.
  4. Storytelling brings clarity. As you create the narrative you share, it helps you understand how you became you. The magic of storytelling is that you can continually edit, reinterpret, and retell your story in ways that allow for choice.

Belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling—these are the basics of effective support groups!

Our families come to us for a place to belong, to be validated, to find a community with people who understand their journey. Here, they don’t need to constantly explain, apologize for, or feel shame about their family’s experiences.

In an effective support group community, our members are able to embrace or rediscover their purpose in the context of their parenting journey. They find healing through making meaning of their children’s and their experiences as they build relationships with the group and its individual members.

We see transcendence in our members when they can reach beyond their own challenges to help another family. We see it when the moment happens as they learn about the difference between can’t and won’t for their children’s abilities and behaviors. We see it when the impact of brain injury and trauma is more deeply understood and a path forward for their deepening relationship with their children reveals itself.

Finally, storytelling is what support groups are built on. Families come to share their individual and collective stories, asking for guidance, validation, and acceptance. By helping our families to rewrite their stories, we offer them opportunities to heal and grow.

13 steps to choosing and sharing joy

If joy is the answer, how do we get there as leaders? How do we show our members how to find joy themselves? Here are 13 steps that have shown themselves to be very effective.

  1. Help your group members look for meaning. Why did they come to this path for family building? What fulfillment were they looking for, and how has that search evolved over time? What can they do to get back to those feelings of purpose and meaning?
  2. Tackle joy in small steps. As foster, kinship, and adoptive parents, it’s so important to celebrate small wins and look for little improvements. Ultimately, all of those little moments will build up to create joy that can be sustained even when things are hard.
  3. Seek gratefulness and gratitude. People often dwell on the negative when things are going badly, and can even spiral downward into despair. Helping your members to see and remember what they have and what they’ve accomplished can help to avoid the spiral. Remind them to take a moment to enjoy those small things they appreciate—a sunny day, a warm cup of tea, a 10-minute uninterrupted bath or shower. Gratitude is an excellent antidote to despair. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who writes and lectures on gratefulness says, “It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us joyful.” Perhaps as a leader you could print and laminate certain hopeful and joy-filled sayings like this and keep them hanging on the wall or as a background whenever you meet.
  4. Make room for a passion. Carve out even 15 minutes for an activity you’re passionate about. As leaders, you likely have found your passion—helping others on similar journeys. Help your members find their passions. Survey their interests and ask them to share a talent with the group. Think creatively about activities that will allow group members to explore their creative side.
  5. Encourage your members to try something new or uncomfortable. The sense of accomplishment when you succeed will bring you a sense of joy, not just in the moment, but as you remember that moment. One idea that could become part of your regular agenda is to invite members to take turns facilitating a discussion about something they have expertise on. Many people find the idea of speaking publicly to be nerve-wracking. After successfully presenting, both the relief that it’s done and pride in it being done well can bring joy to even the most anxious. Note: This is a suggestion that requires leaders to know their members well. Please do not force anyone.
  6. Be present. Help your group to stay present with you. One effective way to do this is to bring the conversation back to what is happening today that members want more of. How do they take those small wins and positive interactions to heart and grow them? Finding the humor in a situation can also help us stay present in the moment—laughter is an immediate reset and relief.
  7. Address your own past trauma experiences and make safe spaces for members to consider theirs. Perhaps you will invite the group to do their individual ACEs screening and have a discussion—or more than one—about how our own experiences can affect our parenting and our self-worth. Also, educate yourself on the significance of secondary traumatic stress and how that may be affecting your or your members’ ability to find joy.
  8. Practice self-care. When the body, mind, and spirit are nourished, you have the space to open yourself up to joy. It’s important to develop a self-care plan that you can stick to. You can also bring self-care activities to your group, encouraging all members to make self-care a priority.
  9. Choose authenticity. When we are our true selves, we cannot help but feel more at peace. As a leader, you set the tone for safety and authenticity. Don’t be afraid to share your own mistakes or self-doubt, doing so with an invitation for others to help you reset. Creating an environment where people can be honest without judgment allows for everyone to grow.
  10. Practice random acts of kindness. Research shows this leads to higher levels of psychological well-being and positive emotions. Perhaps you make it a group norm that you start each meeting with a check-in on members’ random acts of kindness!
  11. Connect with nature. A study compared participants’ moods after walking through nature versus those who walked through a city setting. It found that the nature walkers experienced less anxiety, circular thinking, and negative effects overall. They also experienced more positive emotions and performed better on memory tasks. It may be helpful to take your meetings outside once in a while. Many successful groups take the meeting to a hiking trail. If that isn’t an option, perhaps you could make your space more welcoming with plants, flowers, and scenic pictures? Just like our children, we do better when we are regulated.
  12. Laugh often and well. The endorphins released when we laugh provide natural pain relief, reduce our stress level, and help our immune system. The ability to laugh at a situation helps us to reframe and tease out the opportunities for both creative solutions and a new sense of gratitude. It also just feels great! Include activities during each group meeting that are specifically meant to be silly or funny. It takes practice to find humor in challenging situations.
  13. Seek out positive people and maintain a positive attitude yourself. Help your group to move from venting to reframing, from hopelessness to solutions. This will certainly contribute to the longevity of your group, as joyful people are more likely to create strong and lasting social connections!

These steps are adapted from How to Feel Joy in Your Everyday Life (Even When Life Feels Awful).

Practical strategies to use today

One successful parent support group leader recently started a ritual that she says has transformed the group and moved members from feeling overwhelmed to feeling joyful and hopeful. As each participant introduces themselves at the beginning of the virtual meeting, all of the other participants are asked to put something positive about that person in chat while they are speaking. This positive beginning to the meeting sets it up for success and member satisfaction. It confirms for members that they belong. It calls out their purpose. The affirmations can help them transcend whatever pain or stress they may be carrying.

On the Minnesota-based Adoptive Foster Kinship Connections support Facebook page, “Self-care Sunday” check-ins remind group members to take care of themselves. The many creative ways that members report on their activities (or non-activity!) can be both motivational and joy producing. Other creative reminders include “Thankful Thursday,” post-a-pet-picture requests, and random conversation starters like, “If you were trapped in a children’s book, which one would you want it to be?”

If you’re meeting in person, ask your members if they’d like to go on a field trip or engage in a group activity—bowling, mini golf, and karaoke are all fun suggestions for a change of pace, a change of scenery, and a change of heart.

As you—and your members—embrace the search for joy, you are certain to have more productive and satisfying meetings, and you will find that families’ experiences improve in the long run.