The Benefits of Group Work for Children and Adults Impacted by Divorce
by Robert DiCarlo, Ph.D.
Family members affected by divorce are likely to experience a range of emotions, thoughts, and feelings that may have consequences for short and long-term healthy functioning. In general, engaging family members in a therapeutic process has been shown to improve outcomes for both the parents as well as the children of divorce. Group counseling may be a favorable alternative to costlier and lengthy individual therapeutic interventions.
Group modes of therapy have unique processes that benefit members in ways that can be challenging to achieve through individual therapy. For example, interacting with a group of individuals with similar concerns may serve to normalize the experience in a manner that reduces distress associated with the problem. For children who may feel isolated or ashamed due to a divorce, a group process can be especially helpful. In fact, research has found an association between perceived peer acceptance and anxiety in children. Engaging children together in a group whereby their shared experiences are generalized and understood within the context of a broader social phenomenon may have the effect of reducing anxiety and distress. The same process may also contribute to a child’s deeper understanding of the emotional impact experienced by other children affected by divorce.
Children are not the only ones to benefit from group processes. Adults may find that interacting with other divorcees has a de-stigmatizing effect that leads to a reduction in negative affect and more adaptive problem-solving. Group members may obtain validation from one another surrounding complex emotions that may be negatively impacting their mental health functioning, such as grief, anger, and betrayal. When paired with psychoeducational tools including assertiveness training, anger or stress management, and cognitive skills, group members profit from discussing with one another the most helpful tools or the barriers in implementing them. Group therapy participants may be quicker to adopt the most effective tools and skills if their peers have reported success with them.
Group therapy may also help in high conflict divorce cases. For example, often parents will misplace blame on the other parent for difficulties they observe in a child, when in reality such difficulties may represent normal childhood adjustment issues. Relatedly, they may interpret their co-parents’ behaviors in self-serving ways that work against obtaining a resolution. At other times, parents will place a child in loyalty conflicts by implicitly or explicitly asking them to side with one parent or on a particular issue. Too often, parents are unaware of how their own behaviors provoke or escalate conflicts with their co-parents, or worse, the impact these behaviors have on the child. Groups can navigate through these complex issues by allowing members to respectfully and non-judgmentally challenge one another to self-examine their role in the conflict. When done effectively and with skillful facilitation, group members achieve personal insights and build more adaptive coping skills for dealing with co-parent stress.