Group Therapy: Know Your Options
Parents who are exploring ways to address their teens’ mental health may wonder, “What is group therapy? How does it work, what types are there, and how can it help my child?”
Group therapy can be extremely beneficial, allowing participants to find support not only from a therapist but also from their peers.
To help you better understand this type of treatment, Ranya Eid, clinical director at Embark Behavioral Health, offers her perspective, including advice on finding the right group for your teen.
What Is Group Therapy?
Group therapy is a type of psychotherapy that’s led by a therapist and aimed at fostering support, providing education, and processing emotional and psychiatric challenges that group members experience.
Although it’s often depicted as people sitting in a circle of chairs and sharing their feelings, Eid said it can take many different forms.
“We get them up and moving,” she said, describing the students participating in group therapy sessions at Embark at Tysons Corner, an outpatient clinic in Virginia for preteens and teens ages 12-17. “They might go outside for a mindfulness experience or engage in an art activity that helps to integrate what they’re learning.”
What is group therapy used for? It can vary depending on the group’s focus. Treatment can address a specific issue such as depression or substance abuse. It can also help students improve social skills and find support for struggles with anger, shyness, loneliness, and low self-esteem.
Group therapy can be used alongside individual therapy sessions where a teen and a trained therapist work through thoughts, emotions, and difficult situations. In fact, Eid finds one of its purposes at Tysons Corner is to provide education on what clients are struggling with and to teach and rehearse skills that can directly improve their symptoms.
“We’re teaching skills from a developmental lens and complemented by dialectical behavior therapy techniques and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, including distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness skills — and we’re role playing and doing experiential activities that are focused on skill building,” she said.
She added that teens can process and integrate what they’re learning in individual and family therapy sessions.
What Disorders Does Group Therapy Treat?
Group therapy sessions help treat many mental and emotional disorders, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, autism, and trauma.
While sometimes group therapy may focus on treating one type of disorder, it can also be general enough that clients with different disorders can come together to learn from each other and have empathy for one another.
Eid finds that group treatment is particularly effective for dealing with the everyday stressors teens experience.
“Many teens are feeling isolated and disconnected,” she said, noting that her clinic’s group sessions focus on conflict resolution, self-worth, and making and maintaining healthy relationships. “Group therapy is really valuable because clients are with others who feel similar to them but are at different stages of the treatment process. So, they have the ability to learn from and support each other when needed.”
Types of Group Therapy
There are several different types of group therapy that support teens as they address mental and emotional challenges, such as dialectical behavior, family, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral group therapy.
- With DBT group therapy, there’s a focus on changing negative thinking patterns and promoting positive behavioral changes by teaching four core skills: mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Once learned, these skills can help your teen effectively handle stressful situations instead of reacting in a negative or self-destructive way. This can be especially helpful if your teen has a tendency to self-harm or is suicidal.*
- With family group therapy, family members meet to address challenges such as conflict between parents and teens. These group settings also provide a place to discuss and review what your child is learning in individual therapy.
Group Therapy Effectiveness
So, how effective is group therapy at treating mental disorders, including personality disorders? By regularly interacting in a safe space, teens learn to express themselves in healthy ways. They become more emotionally assertive and learn they can be comfortable talking to peers as well as adults. Over time, these social skills translate into their daily lives, leaving them with better communication skills, reduced stress, and improved relationships.
Several professional organizations have evaluated group treatment success rates.
For example, an article published in the peer-reviewed BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education noted that multiple studies on group therapy success rates found “many empirical studies suggest that group therapy is effective for a variety of patients. It is particularly effective for anxiety and social-phobic illness … In a lengthy case study involving a client with severe social-phobia, group therapy impacted her more profoundly than many other methods of counseling.”
An analysis of 20 randomized control trials published by Psychotherapy Research, the official journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, looked at the use of group treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It found that group psychotherapy reduced PTSD symptoms in patients compared to no-treatment control groups.
Finding Group Therapy Near You
If you’re interested in finding group therapy near you, a good place to start is the American Group Psychotherapy search tool, where you can find a certified therapist and narrow your search by type of group (e.g., one for adolescents).
When choosing treatment for your teen, Eid said it’s important to ask about the curriculum and the mental or emotional disorders being addressed. She added that the atmosphere should be as welcoming as possible.
“The biggest thing that’s needed for any work to be done is to have an environment that conveys unconditional acceptance,” she said. “Clients in this environment know it’s safe to be authentic, which helps them do the work in a group therapy model so they can heal.”
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 -the Crisis Text Line- from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!