Parenting Support Groups
I wish I knew then what I know now. As a parent of a young child on the autism spectrum I struggled with emotional and spiritual challenges that come with raising a child with special needs. The judgmental stares, the not-so-helpful tips on parenting, the isolation … all made coping so much more challenging than it should have been. Like any significant life challenge, raising a child with special needs is made easier through support by others on the same journey. A sense of connection and belonging, the genuine empathy of a shared “me too!” moment, greatly reduces stress and increases resilience.
Faith communities that offer support groups for parents of children with special needs open a vital pathway to pastoral care. Support groups relieve isolation, help individuals process emotions, create an avenue of respite and self-care, and provide a sound theological understanding of God’s presence in the midst of special needs. They also improve personal and family resilience. According to a study by Erik Carter and Courtney Taylor of Vanderbilt University, 71% of special needs parents surveyed wanted a support group through their church, yet only 12% of their churches met their need.
Support groups are actually pretty easy to start and sustain. Whereas some special needs ministries may require many volunteers, a support group needs three things: a leader with good people and organizational skills, a place to meet, and a format for sharing emotional and spiritual support. When beginning a new group it is important to include special needs parents in the planning process so that the group meets their particular needs for time, location, and interests. Here are some strategies for starting and sustaining a group.
Empower a discussion leader. This person could be clergy or a layperson. They may have a family member with special needs, but that is not required. Stephen Ministers or care ministry members with gifts of compassion can facilitate discussions. Mainly, the leader needs to be skilled at facilitating discussions and good with follow-up and details, such as sharing prayer requests, keeping the roster current, emailing reminders, following up if someone stops attending, and so forth. The leader is the glue that holds the group together.
Choose a location. Groups can meet at church, in a home, coffee shop, or local community center. Ideally, the meeting should be in a space where people feel comfortable talking freely. Choose a space where people can gather in a circle rather than sitting in rows.
Choose a day and time. The day and time make all the difference in who is included in the group. Daytime groups tend to include stay-at-home parents, though some who work may attend over a lunch hour. People who work and single parents often cannot attend during the day. Sunday morning groups often get couples and single parents due to children receiving care in Sunday school while parents attend their own class. Weeknight groups that offer childcare accommodate parents who work as well as single parents. When scheduling weeknight meetings, plan to end early enough for parents to get children to bed on school nights. Choose a day and time that balances the schedules of parents who want to participate with the availability of the discussion leader. Allow a minimum of 60 minutes, and preferably 90 minutes, for meetings.
Choose frequency. Groups that meet weekly or bi-weekly tend to get more closely bonded and connected than groups that meet monthly. Also, parents with children with higher levels of needs benefit from more frequent access to support. The special needs community is very fluid with health and behavior issues often keeping a parent away from groups at the last minute. If a group is only meeting monthly, various circumstances may limit a parent to only participating a few times a year.
Make a childcare decision. As with choosing a day and time to meet, whether or not your group will offer childcare impacts who can participate. If a congregation is not equipped to offer childcare, a daytime or weeknight group may be the best options. Children are in school during the day and couples can “tag team” on weeknights so that one parent can attend. Churches can still include single parents by offering to assist with the cost of hiring a sitter.
Create a plan. There are a variety of ways to organize a group. Book discussions keep the group focused on common material and learning new skills for coping, which helps meet emotional and spiritual needs. Guest speakers help meet informational needs on topics of common interest to special needs families, such as estate planning, guardianship, navigating social security disability, advocating for educational needs. A group can also be as simple as opening with a devotion and then inviting parents to share about their week. Groups work especially well when they rotate among these, reading a book for several weeks, then inviting in a guest speaker followed by a few less structured meetings before beginning another book. A list of suggested books is available below. I wrote Special Needs Parenting: From Coping to Thriving specifically to help churches launch support groups.
Invite, invite, invite! Create awareness about the group by adding it to the church website, promoting through social media, bulletins, and announcements. Reach outside the congregation with a press release to local newspapers, flyers in coffee shops, therapist’s offices, and local schools. The best way to grow a group is through personal invitation.
Get social. Encourage parents to connect outside of group meetings by setting up closed groups on social media. With parent permission, share the group roster of email addresses and phone numbers among members. Schedule a social gathering such as dinner or movie night several times throughout the year.
Be seasonal. Groups often have a rhythm to them. Parents are more available at the start of the school year and after the holidays. Support groups that are crowded in September and October are often empty in December and over the summer. Plan for off time so that discussion leaders get a break. It can get discouraging to plan a meeting and have low turnout. Use these off times for a monthly social night out to help the group stay connected.
Through leading support groups for many years I’ve seen time and again the healing that happens in community. Though parents within the same group often have children with a variety of diagnoses, the emotional and spiritual journey is similar. That journey is made all the richer by sharing the path and encouraging each other.