Chapter 7: Growth Groups for Children and Families

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 7: Growth Groups for Children and Families

At each age and stage of their child's growth, parents experience themselves differently. They relive, often without realizing it, their comparable growth stage.... This reliving process can become a constructive thing, giving parents a second chance to do unfinished growth work.... This happens only if they are aware of what is happening and make the necessary effort.... A child's growth phases and struggles are really an invitation to continued growth on the part of his parents!

Crisis and Growth l

Growth groups can be helpful in the difficult, challenging assignment faced by all parents. Parent growth groups offer in-depth training in the art of parenting. Growth groups for children can facilitate a child's development by providing fulfilling experiences. Multiple-family groups can help whole-family units discover and develop their strengths. The goal of these family-oriented growth groups could be stated as "self-actualizing person in the full functioning family."2

Parents face a king-sized challenge as the primary growth enablers (or blockers) in their children's most rapid growth years. Almost all parents want to do a good job. Fortunately, most possess enough strength and love to succeed reasonably well. But parenting is getting more difficult; lightning-fast change increasingly widens the gulf between the worlds in which successive generations are formed. Somehow parents must help children learn broader, more flexible life-styles and role concepts which will be viable in the new world of tomorrow. To nurture healthier, more life-loving children capable of making something better of that unknown world -- this is the need and the challenge. Growth groups can help. Every family, like every individual, has unused, or partially used, strengths, abilities, resources. A growth group aims at helping families mine this hidden gold.

Growth Groups for Children

The use of play therapy methods with "normal" children in nursery schools, elementary schools, Sunday schools, clubs, and homes can nurture growth and prevent many emotional problems from developing. Clark E. Moustakas, child therapist, describes these methods as "an opportunity to enter into a significant personal relationship with an adult in a situation where the boundaries are greatly expanded" and the child is free to express and play out usually forbidden feelings.3

A play-growth group for preschool or elementary school children should be small (three to six is best) and led by an adult who likes children, understands the basics of play therapy,4 and isn't threatened by children's often violent feelings. Any warm, accepting, and emotionally stable parent or teacher can develop the skills needed for a play-growth group. The setting is a room where one doesn't have to worry about the floor and furnishings. Equipment may consist of paints and paper ( both finger and brush types); families of dolls and puppets for fantasy play; clay for making and squashing things; a pan of water and a sand tray for messing; and lots of toys for encouraging release of pent-up aggressiveness -- tanks, trucks, pounding boards, punching devices, and things for throwing or shooting without hurting. The adult's role is to encourage free expression, to be available to relate as the children reach out, and to enforce (if necessary) the ground rules -- ''Here we can do anything we like except hurt ourselves or others, or destroy property." Communication and expression by the children should be allowed to be spontaneous and free -- through play, fantasy, words, paintings, acting with dolls, puppets, or whatever. Activities may be pursued individually or in spontaneous subgroupings of children. The facilitator doesn't pressure the children to discuss what they are doing, but he welcomes and encourages spontaneous communication.

A play-growth group encourages children to play out negative feelings (anger, jealousy, fear, guilt, destructiveness ) so that these will not be expressed in self- or other-hurting behavior, nor block positive feelings (joy, love, pleasure, self-esteem), nor distort relationships. Play-growth groups provide opportunities to relate to other children in an atmosphere of openness and growth. They encourage children to use their imaginations in creative ways. Finally, they provide an experience of relating to an adult who values feelings, fantasy, and play -- and can help each child use his unique inner resources in socially constructive ways. Such experiences allow a child to grow in his ability to relate and in his "it's-good-to-be-me" feelings.

Groups can help grammar school children deal with the big feelings related to the achievement of growth goals at that stage -- feelings related to acquiring major language and mathematics skills, learning to function comfortably outside the home, and firming up relationships with the same-sexed parent and chums. Under use of one's full potential in school (underachieving) often reflects fears and inner conflicts which can be resolved in a growth group. Although there is usually more verbal communication in such groups than in preschool groups, activities and play still predominate. The adult facilitator is available when the child is ready to discuss what he's doing and feeling. There may be brief sharing sessions as a group.

Parent-Led Growth Experiences

Parents who are tuned to feelings can use home-grown play-therapy growth methods to help a child deal with crises such as the death or departure of a family member, an accident or natural disaster, a family uprooting, or a stress such as starting school. It can also be used at noncrisis times to free the child to employ and enjoy his strengths more fully.

Clark Moustakas recommends these principles:

(1) There should be a particular place to play. (2) A variety of play materials should be provided . . . [such as those described above]. (3) Children should be permitted to express what they wish and not be obliged to follow a model or product that meets a social or art standard. (4) No attempt should be made to interpret to the child the symbols involved in his play.... The child's own judgment and expressed feelings provide the best clues to the meaning of his play. They should be accepted exactly as they are expressed. (5) The parent should listen to the child's expressions, take his clues from the child, and convey full acceptance and understanding.5

There are excellent suggestions on parents' uses of play-therapy methods in several books about children.6 A small play-growth group composed of one's own children, with perhaps several from the neighborhood, is one productive approach to using this method.

"Filial therapy" is a promising development in the mental health field. It involves training parents in groups of six to eight to conduct play-therapy sessions with their emotionally disturbed children in their homes. Parents continue to attend weekly group meetings with the trainer-therapist to discuss the play sessions and any other relevant matters. The children are not seen by the therapist. Instead, the parents, supported by the professional therapist and the group of parents involved in the same process, are responsible for the total therapy.7 The possibilities of applying the filial therapy model to the growth work of normal children are exciting indeed. A parents' growth group could be trained to use play-growth procedures at home concurrently with the life of the group. Ideally, both parents should participate in the group and in leading the play sessions at home.

Growth Groups for Parents

Parent education does not automatically increase parental effectiveness. But it does to the extent that it helps parents deal with their feelings (including feelings about their children), increases their head and heart understanding of themselves and their children, and strengthens their sense of competence as parents. Churches, schools, and community agencies should provide such groups for parents of children at each family stage from prebirth through launching ( adolescence ). Each stage makes different demands; each offers new opportunities for family fulfillment. Parents can help the whole family become a growth group by learning to satisfy the psychological hungers of each other and their children. Changing male/female roles, which enable fathers to be more deeply involved in child nurture than ever before, increase the need for parent education beamed at them. The most effective parent growth groups are those in which mothers and dads are equally involved.

For the mental health of tomorrow's world, no groups could be more strategic than those for parents of infants and toddlers. In these crucial growth years, a child's basic foundation of trust or mistrust is developed. To be able to nurture a child's trust, parents must feel trust in themselves and each other. Parent growth groups for this stage should be trust building groups, attempting to reduce new-parent jitters, to give mutual support and an opportunity to share feelings, and to lessen the loneliness and anxieties connected with learning new parental roles.

A Long Island church sponsored a child-study nursery group meeting one morning a week throughout the school year. The group combined a child-study/growth experience for the mothers, child-care for infants, and a nursery school for preschoolers. A rotating steering committee was elected to plan programs and handle the mechanics of the meetings. An "interest finder" to identify needs was circulated periodically to all members as a basis of program-planning. The group was open to any mother of a preschool child in the church or community.

Sessions usually began with input to stimulate interaction: a film on children, a brief talk on a topic such as "developing confidence in children," a panel of mothers discussing an article on sex education for children, or some such activity. The interaction which followed often, though not always, reached a level of personal feelings, problems, and worries. Participants became a support-group to each other. As trust grew, the focus tended to broaden from childrearing to further discussion of their own needs. While the mothers met, a staff of six trained volunteers supervised the nursery school and provided baby care.

Evening meetings were held to share choice programs with husbands. In retrospect, it is clear that much greater involvement of the men would have increased the growth impact of the group. As it was, however, it met many needs.

Every stage of child development poses special stresses in parent-child relationships. Growth groups for parents of preteens and teen-agers can be highly productive. One church invited parents of the high school fellowship to a series of Sunday night discussion sessions using Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Teen-Ager as a stimulus for group interaction. A part of each evening was spent in a joint parent-youth rap session. The importance of intergenerational dialogue is increased by the urgent need to overcome the alienation from adults which many young people feel. Kingman Brewster, President of Yale University, has stated pointedly: "If the country does not rediscover its own sons and daughters, no amount of law and order or crisis management will make any difference in the long run."8

Parent Effectiveness Training9 has demonstrated that many parents can improve relationships with their children through dynamic education in groups. Over fifteen thousand persons in two hundred communities have taken courses in this "school for parents." The program might be described as training and coaching in communication and relationship skills. (The same principles have now been applied in a Teacher Effectiveness Training program. )

An Oregon psychologist who has led P.E.T. groups reports that this approach attracts many people because it is explicitly training (not therapy) aimed at greater effectiveness (a positive, growth-oriented goal). It keeps the focus on relationships with one's children, not on relationships within the group. Active involvement and practice of essential skills are encouraged by role-playing and case illustrations.10

Befriending our Inner Child

In parent growth groups where the intent is to deal with whatever attitudes and feelings are distorting good parent-child relationships ( as contrasted with the skill-training and discussion-type growth groups ), it is be essential to help persons reconnect with their inner Child or Adolescent. One method for accomplishing this was described in the last chapter. In one group, each person was asked to draw a picture of himself as a child and then to reflect on it for a few minutes. Following this, he was asked to close his eyes, fantasy himself as a child at the age he had drawn, and then picture in his imagination some experience from his childhood, attempting to relive the original feelings. Subsequent discussion in the group revealed that several individuals had reconnected dramatically with their still active child feelings. The night after this experience, I had a powerful dream which gave me access to unresolved grief feelings from a painful loss early in my childhood.

Some ineffectiveness in parenting is rooted in unresolved guilt, dependency, and resentment toward one's own parents, living or dead. In growth groups, fantasy techniques may help resolve these feelings: "Picture yourself at the age when your feelings toward your parents were most intense . . . How do you feel? . . . Now, see yourself confronting your parents . . . tell them how you feel . . ." (At this point the person is invited to verbalize his feelings as intensely as he desires.) In one parents' group, a woman was able in this way to reduce her resentment toward rigid restrictions on her during adolescence. She discovered subsequently that this lessened the conflict with her teen-age daughter.

Transgenerational Growth Experiences

Parent/child and parent/teen relationships can often be enhanced by transgenerational group experiences. One such approach is play therapy with entire families participating.11 Dad, mother, and children all come to the playroom. Each does what best expresses his own inner world and they interact with one another as they play and create. This approach has many possibilities for increasing well-family effectiveness in churches and community agencies, family camps and workshops.

One of many values of play -- growth groups for adults is that they may reawaken the capacity to play -- a capacity stomped down in many of us by long subservience to the work ethic. Spontaneous, expressive play -- in contrast to the frantic "recreation" which is really a form of compulsive work -- is itself liberating and growth-stimulating. It belongs in every growth group but it is particularly valuable as a bridge between generations in parent/child, parent/teen, and family groups. Children and youth watching adults play may be embarrassed (or amused) at first, but the experience may establish a positive bond linking the Child sides of each generation. Activities such as shared play therapy or a period of free movement to frolicking music in a group can awaken the spirit of playfulness.

The family growth conference or celebration is another transgenerational approach. In a session of one and a half hours with a growth-oriented counselor,pastor, or family-life educator, a family seeks to accomplish these goals: discover what each member appreciates and what he would like to change about the family; find out what each member thinks are the unused strengths of the family; get each person's suggestions for improving the family by using more of these strengths; set a few goals based on areas of agreement about improving things and using family strengths. (In the next session, progress toward these goals is reported.) After the checkup phase, growth in the family is celebrated with a party or something else the whole family enjoys. Families with good communication can conduct their own checkup/celebrations (perhaps with a rotating chairman). But an outside facilitator is essential in many situations, particularly for the first few sessions. Herbert Otto's Family Strength Inquiry is an action-oriented inventory which is useful in structuring the checkup around specific areas of family strength, thus avoiding the danger of getting sidetracked in a nongrowth, family pathology direction.12

Family Growth Networks

The health of a family is directly related to the strength of the supportive circle of relationships just outside the family. The biological clan (grandparents, aunts, uncles, within close range) no longer exists for most families. Therefore, to become true growth groups for their members, families need workable alternatives to the clan.13 Fortunately, functional families can become mutual growth facilitators to each other, by relating with continuity, openness, and caring! The late Fred Stoller proposed a new structure which he called "the intimate network of families":

A circle of three or four families who meet together regularly and frequently, share in reciprocal fashion any of their intimate secrets, offer one another a variety of services and do not hesitate to influence one another in terms of values and attitudes.14

The idea emerged from experiences in family workshops -- weekend growth meetings of three or four families aimed at developing more creative interaction. Openness and intimate sharing developed rapidly. A number continued to meet periodically after the workshops, developing at least a partially intimate network. Certain communes involving clusters of families are close approximations of family networks.

Growth-oriented family camps provide ideal settings for experiencing the people dynamic both within and among families. Camps which are designed for maximum growth provide small group opportunities for strengthening husband-wife, parent-child, whole-family, and family-to-family relationships. One such model included a daily parents growth group, family cluster groups ( three families meeting together ), and marriage enrichment groups (for couples, each evening). These were interspersed with opportunities for crafts, nature study, hikes, art, dramatics, dance, stories, games, as well as meals, rest, and a "family hour." One goal of this plan was to "help families form ties of friendship, caring and sharing, with other families -- thereby developing a network of extended families."15

"Y" programs, in various places, have developed whole-family growth activities. For example, one YMCA in California sponsored a Saturday-Sunday Family Growth Workshop aimed at improving family communication. In Milwaukee, the "Y" sponsors Family Coteries, groups of eight to ten couples who are in the same stage of the family life cycle. A head couple is chosen by the group to work with the "Y" staff to discover program ideas which will meet the needs of these families. A monthly meeting of adults starts with a potluck meal followed by an educational or social program geared to the participants' needs. In addition, the families meet once a month for programs related to their interests. Once a year, the Family Coterie spends a weekend together to foster "in-depth relationships within and among the families." The goals of the Family Coterie program include: "developing communication between adults and youth, seeking a better understanding of ourselves . . . developing human relations skills, learning how to release the growth potential in the young, gaining a sense of balance in a world of confused values."16


Additional Reading -- Family Growth Groups

("L" = of interest primarily to group leaders.)

Auerbach, A. B., Parents Learn Through Discussion: Principles and Practices of Patent Group Education New York: John Wiley, 1968.

L Axline, Virginia, Play Therapy. New York: Ballantine, rev. ed. 1969.

Axline, Virginia, Dibs, In Search of Self. New York: Ballantine, 1964.

Baruch, Dorothy W., New Ways in Discipline. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1949.

Clinebell, Charlotte H. and Howard J., Jr., Crisis and Growth: Helping Your Troubled Child. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Clinebell, Howard J., Jr. and Charlotte H., "Developing Parent-Child Intimacy," The Intimate Marriage. Chap. 8.

Ginott, Haim G., Between Parent and Child. New York: Avon Books, 1965.

Gordon, Thomas, Parent-Effectiveness Training. New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1970.

L Guerney, Bernard G., Jr., Ed., Psychotherapeutic Agents. New Roles for Nonprofessionals, Parents and Teachers. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, Part 6.

Moustakas, Clark E., Psychotherapy with Children, The Living Relationship. New York: Harper & Row, 1959. Chap. 8.

L Satir, Virginia, Conjoint Family Therapy, A Guide to Theory and Practice. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books, 1964.




1. Charlotte H. and Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., Crisis and Growth: Helping Your Troubled Child, pp. 32-33.

2. Ellis G. Olim, "The Self-Actualizing Person in the Fully Functioning Family; A Humanistic Viewpoint," The Family Coordinator, July, 1968, pp. 141 ff.

3. Clark E. Moustakas, Psychotherapy with Children, p. 41.

4. See books by Axline and Moustakas.

5. Moustakas, op. cit., p. 277.

6. See Chapter 8 in Moustakas; Guerney, Part 6; and Baruch, Part III. Ginott's Between Parent and Child is a guide to the art of staying on the child's wavelength.

7. Bernard, Guerney, Jr., "Filial Therapy: Description and Rationale," in Guerney, Psychotherapeutic Agents, p. 459.

8. Joseph Fletcher, "Generation Gap: Opportunity Lever," The Churchman, Aug/Sept., 1970, p. 6.

9. P.E.T. was developed in 1962 by Thomas Gordon.

10. Personal communication, Frank Strange, May 9, 1971.

11. Charlotte H. Clinebell has used this approach in her work as a child and family therapist.

12. See Herbert A. Otto, "The Minister and Family Strengths," Pastoral Psychology, April, 1966, pp. 21-28. The Pastoral Institute of Calgary now has a "Marriage-Checkup" program for functional marriages.

13. The proliferation of communes in North America is in part a search for a more supportive "family" by youth reared in isolated nuclear families.

14. "The Intimate Network of Families as a New Structure," The Family in Search of a Future, p. 152.

15. Mrs. Edith Cole developed this plan for future use by her church group.

16. From a brochure on "The Family Coterie," YMCA of Greater Milwaukee.