Group therapy is one of the most successful interventions for adolescents. This is because of the nature of this stage of development and the need to belong to a group. Hearing the stories of other teens and knowing that their experiences and feelings are similar is very therapeutic. Another characteristic of the adolescent stage is a short attention span, so the clinical social worker should tailor exercises that initiate and sustain discussion for adolescents.
For this Assignment, watch the “Bradley” video.
In a 2- to 4-page paper, identify two opening exercises that you might recommend for a group of adolescent girls who were victims of human trafficking.
- Describe the exercises in detail so that another social worker would be able to implement them.
- Explain ways these exercises might be effective in creating a comfortable environment for these teenage girls.
- Support your rationale with the literature. For example, what does the literature say about teenage girls who have been arrested for prostitution/human trafficking and who openly discuss their experiences?
- How do these exercises promote group cohesion and encourage these teens to talk openly?
Objectives in the Beginning Stage
The beginning stage is often considered, by both novice and experienced workers, to be a difficult
stage of group work because members often seek direction about how to proceed but are
ambivalent about following any suggestions. Members struggle to maintain their autonomy but, at
the same time, to fit in and get along with others in the group. The worker’s primary goals are to help
members feel comfortable in the group, to work together in a cooperative and productive manner,
and to feel that their unique contribution to the group is respected and appreciated. To accomplish
these goals it is helpful to:
Ensure a secure environment where members begin to bond with the leader and with each other
Facilitate member introductions
Clarify the purpose and function of the group, as it is perceived by the worker, the members, and the
Discuss and clarify the limits of confidentiality within the group
Help members to feel that they are an important part of the group
Guide the development of the group
Balance task and socio-emotional aspects of the group process
Contract for work
Facilitate members’ motivation and ability to work in the group
Address ambivalence and resistance
Work with involuntary members
Anticipate obstacles to achieving individual and group goals
Monitor and evaluate the group as the change process begins
In the following pages, these tasks and the corresponding skills necessary to carry them out are
presented sequentially. In actual practice, of course, the group worker should be concerned about
these tasks simultaneously.
Ensuring a Secure Environment
No work can be accomplished in groups unless members feel secure when participating. Therefore,
a fundamental and essential role for the worker in the beginning stage is to make sure that members
are feeling comfortable, safe, and secure with their participation in the group. New workers should
recognize that members of groups might come from environments that are not comfortable, safe, or
secure. In fact, some members may be hypervigilant, expecting the worst in all or most
environments. This could be because of any number of adverse childhood events, or current bio-
psycho-social-environmental assaults on their integrity. For example, members could have
witnessed or experienced repeated trauma during childhood, such as neglect, or emotional and
physical abuse. They could have experienced severe poverty, racism, or violence. They may have
been bullied as a child or adolescent or learned that the way to survive in their neighborhood was to
become a gang member. As adults they may continue to experience violence, marginalization,
exploitation, oppression, or other factors that make them wary of participating in a group.
Workers should display patience and equanimity, gradually demonstrating to these traumatized
members that the group is a positive place for support, healing, and rejuvenation where they can
trust the worker and fellow members to work together to accomplish meaningful goals. Workers have
to spend time to build security and trust before proceeding with agendas and goals. Workers who do
not build a secure and safe environment early in the group will not be successful over the long-term.
It is a mistake to pursue mandated goals without physical and emotional safety and security assured
to members. Proceeding without safety and security also violates ethical principles.
There are too many settings where workers are expected to work on mandated goals before
members are ready. Workers should keep in mind members’ rights to self-determination and social
justice. There are limits to what can be accomplished with some members. Workers need to
recognize and be comfortable with the limits of what they are able to accomplish in some situations
and engage in self-care. The goal should be engagement and respect, using a positive, relaxed
pace where members are encouraged to gradually share their stories, and reveal what help they
would like from the group. Workers should listen intensely, learning all they can while encouraging
members to use their resilience, skills, and strengths to overcome adversity and move toward
healthier lifestyles. Group leaders may have an immediate or delayed impact on some members,
and may not be able to help others. It is often difficult for workers to know what if any impact they
have had on members. Therefore, they should remain positive and self-soothing even when they
question whether they are having a positive impact.
There are many ways to build a safe and secure environment. First, the worker should acknowledge
that members might not feel secure or be ready to self-disclose. In some families and cultures,
showing vulnerabilities, such as insecurity, may not be acceptable. Therefore, members may not
want to risk sharing feelings at first, and this should be acknowledged by the worker. Workers can
begin by asking members to present whatever information about themselves they are willing to
share. Workers can be role models sharing information about themselves first. After this occurs,
members can be encouraged to talk about their aspirations, goals, and dreams. Workers can tie
these aspirations to what the group may be able to help them accomplish.
Another step is to take every opportunity to support members’ goals, paying close attention to both
their immediate and longer term needs and wants. Workers should be role models, describing their
previous positive experiences in similar groups and how they might be able to help members have
better lives. They can ask for members help to make the group a safe, enjoyable place to heal and
In the early stages, conflict, criticism, and other forms of negative feedback should be avoided. If any
verbal or nonverbal interactions occur that are not supportive or encouraging, workers should
intervene, gently modeling supportive interactions that are uplifting and self-esteem building.
Workers should remember that time will be available later in the development of the group to focus
on problems and issues and to use confrontation or other strategies that are more appropriate in
later group meetings when respectful, trusting relationships have been established.
The beginning of groups should be reserved for pointing out and building on members’ strengths and
resiliencies, helping them to become empowered and vital contributors to the success of the group.
A positive, upbeat, and warm manner that praises and encourages members for their unique
contributions is essential in early group meetings, especially when working with members who are
reluctant, resistant, or mandated participants. As members tell their stories, and have them affirmed,
they begin to grow more trusting and open with their fellow group members. By affirming and
validating members’ experiences, workers show that they are attentive and understanding, starting
with the members and staying with them. This, in turn, can help to form therapeutic alliances with
members, where trust grows. As genuine and warm interactions continue, members begin to bond
with the worker and each other, and can begin to feel safe to tackle some of the difficult issues they
face as they move forward. Building a base of trust, and feelings that the group can be helpful, is of
utmost importance when reluctant members first begin to participate and engage in beginning group
Assess your understanding of the objectives and skills that are useful in the beginning stage of
group work by taking this brief quiz.
Introducing New Members
When the participants have arrived and the group is ready to begin, the first task of the worker is to
introduce members to one another. Introductions help members share their mutual concerns and
interests, and they develop trust. The worker should decide what information is important for
members to share with the group. Beyond each member’s name, the information revealed by each
member should depend on the purpose of the group. For example, if the group is an interagency
task force to study the problems of battered women, members might be expected to share their
position in their agency, their experiences with services for battered women, and their reasons for
becoming involved in the task force. If the group is for parents with children who have behavior
problems, in addition to information about themselves, members might briefly describe their children
and the behavior problems they are experiencing.
Introductions can give members a starting point for interaction. Therefore, the information that is
shared should attempt to bring out commonalities. The worker can facilitate this process by noting
common characteristics and shared concerns disclosed by different members. Rather than
proceeding through the introduction mechanically, the worker should encourage members to discuss
commonalities. This process helps members feel at ease with one another. It also helps develop
group cohesion and demonstrates to members that they are not alone with their problems and
Case Example A Support Group for Caregivers of Persons with Dementia
The worker asked each member in turn to talk about themselves, the person for whom they were
caring, and the problems they were experiencing. One member, Mary, mentioned how concerned
she was about her husband driving even though he refused to give it up. The worker stopped the
group introductions at this point and asked if anyone else had experienced a similar problem and
how they handled it. Several members began to talk about the problem and their concerns about it.
The worker suggested that since this seemed to be a concern for many members that they continue
with the introductions, but take up the topic of driving later during the group meeting. Later during
introductions, another member brought up the topic of her husband’s agitated behavior and how he
paced and followed her from room to room. Again, the worker asked if any other group members
had experienced that problem, and several said they had. The worker said that they would also talk
about that behavior later in the group meeting or during the next group meeting if there was not time
to get to it in today’s meeting.
The opportunity for members to share common concerns and issues with one another is one of the
unique aspects of social group work practice. Yalom (2005) has called this phenomenon universality.
People who come to treatment groups often believe that they are alone with their problems. In
reality, although they may have been experiencing their problems in isolation, other people
experience similar concerns. The first group meeting provides them with feelings of support and
comfort as they realize they are not alone.
A similar process occurs in task groups. For example, workers from different community agencies
often experience the same frustrations and problems in serving clients with particular social service
needs. Alone, workers may think they can do little to make the system more responsive to clients.
Together, in a task force, a treatment conference, or in any other task group, workers can share their
concerns, coordinate their efforts, and work to change problematic situations.
The most common method of introducing members to one another is to have them speak in round
robin fashion. If this method is used, it is helpful for the worker to go first. In the early stages of the
group, members take many of their cues from the worker who can serve as a model by disclosing
personal characteristics. Once members hear the worker’s introduction, they are likely to focus on
the disclosures as they introduce themselves.
Sometimes, the worker may want members to disclose information about areas of concern that the
worker does not share. For example, in a group of parents, the worker may not have children.
Workers should note the absence of this characteristic in their own lives, state how it might affect
their work in the group, and ask members to comment on this factor in their introductions. For
example, the worker might say, “I don’t have any children of my own, but I’ve worked with children in
the past at summer camp, in foster care, and for the past four years in my current position.”
When they introduce themselves, members rarely disclose more than the worker has disclosed. In
fact, they initially tend to disclose less than the worker. Therefore, if workers expect a certain level of
self-disclosure or want to foster disclosures in a certain area, their introductions should reflect what
is expected. This is not to suggest that the introductions should call on members to reveal in-depth,
personal life experiences. Pressing for such disclosures at the beginning of a group is likely to
increase rather than decrease barriers to open communication.
Communication styles and expectations about self-disclosure are influenced by our cultural heritage.
Pearson (1991) suggests, for example, that clients who identify with the cultural imperatives in
Chinese society may believe that close, personal relationships are usually reserved for family and
that high levels of self-disclosure are not as desirable as a “balance and restraint in the experience
and expression of emotions” (p. 51).
Variations on Round Robin
Several variations on the round robin may be useful in opening different types of groups. To
increase interaction, for example, members can be divided into pairs. One member of each pair
interviews the other for five minutes by asking for details specified by the worker. When time is up,
members reverse roles and continue for another five minutes. When the group reconvenes,
members introduce their partners to the group by recalling the facts learned during their
conversation. In addition to helping members develop a relationship with a partner, group workers
find that this method of introduction sometimes leads to a greater depth of self-disclosure than round
robin because new group members are likely to reveal more about themselves on a one-to-one
basis than when they face the entire group.
A variation on this opening is what Shulman (2016) has called “problem swapping” (pp. 428-429).
Members volunteer to discuss their problems or concerns openly before the group. This opening
promotes group interaction, leads to the identification of shared problems and concerns, and helps
members consider how they might proceed.
An opening that is useful in growth-oriented groups is known as top secret. Members are asked to
write down one thing about themselves that they have not or would not ordinarily reveal to new
acquaintances. The leader collects the top secrets and reads them to the group. Members attempt to
identify the person who made each revelation, giving a reason for their choice. This exercise can be
repeated in a later group session to illustrate the extent to which trust and cohesion have increased
in the group. Members often reveal more intimate or personal top secrets after they come to know
and feel comfortable with the members of their group. Variations on this opening exercise are my
most embarrassing experience and my greatest success.
Another opening exercise that can help members disclose something about themselves or their
family of origin is called my name. Members can be asked to discuss how they got their names and
what meaning the name has for them and for their family of origin. For example, a member might
state that his father felt strongly that he should be named Samuel, after an uncle who had died. The
member goes on to discuss the uncle and other facts about his family of origin. He might also
mention that he disliked being called Sam by his parents and decided at age 13 to insist that his
parents and friends call him by his middle name, Allen. This exercise can often lead to interesting
discussions of members’ feelings about themselves now and in the past. It also helps members
learn each other’s names, which is important for open and personal interaction.
Other openings, such as treasure hunt, can be useful. Members are asked to find two or three facts
about each of the other group members. This activity offers much structured but informal interaction,
helping members overcome initial anxieties and shyness about participating. The facts obtained are
shared when the group reconvenes.
Program activities can also be used in opening a group. Such activities help members share
important information about themselves while working on an assigned task or activity. In addition to
increasing members’ self-disclosure, program activities can build cohesion in the group. For
example, in children’s groups, members may be asked to pick an animal that represents them.
When introducing themselves, members can name the animals they have selected and state what
characteristics of the animal they identify with. Another program activity for children or adolescent
groups is to have members stand in a circle and hold hands with two members who are not next to
them. Members are then asked to untangle themselves and form a circle without letting go of each
Variations in Group Beginnings
A number of factors can change the way a worker begins a group. Sometimes workers become
involved with groups of people who have known each other before the group was formed. This can
occur when the members are clients of a neighborhood center, a residential treatment facility, or are
friends in the community. Similarly, in task groups, members may be familiar with one another as
coworkers in the same agency or as coworkers in a network of agencies working with similar clients
or a similar social problem. When members know one another, the challenges for the worker are
different from the challenges that occur in a group of strangers.
Members who have had previous contact with one another are more likely to relate in ways that are
characteristic of their previously established patterns. Roles and relationships established earlier
may be carried into the new group, regardless of their functional or dysfunctional nature in the
current group situation. In groups in which only a few members know one another or in which
previous relationships between members vary from friendly to neutral or unfriendly, subgroups are
likely to develop more often than they would in groups composed of strangers. There is also a
natural tendency for friends or acquaintances to interact with one another and exclude strangers.
When it is possible to obtain information about potential group members, the worker should try to
find out about any relationships that may exist among them. This will give the worker some indication
of what form members’ relationships are likely to take as they begin the group. It also gives the
worker an opportunity to plan strategies to intervene in dysfunctional relationship patterns. The
worker may wish to use information about members’ previous relationships to reconsider the
composition of the group and to understand members’ interactions as the group unfolds. For
example, a worker in a group home might use knowledge about the relationships that have
developed among residents when deciding how to intervene to change communication patterns in a
group that has just been established within the facility.
Another common variation in beginning a group occurs when the worker becomes involved in a
previously formed group (see, for example, the following case example). This can happen when a
worker (1) reaches out and works with a gang of adolescents, (2) is a consultant for a self-help
group, (3) is asked to staff a previously formed committee, or (4) is asked to replace the leader of an
intact treatment group. These situations are different from one in which all members are new to the
group. Instead of members looking to the leader for direction, as in a new group, the worker in a
previously formed group is the newcomer in a group with established patterns of relating. Members
of previously formed groups are concerned with how the worker will affect the group, what they will
have to do to accommodate the worker, and what the worker will expect of them. Members may also
act on feelings resulting from termination with a previous worker. This is demonstrated in the
following case example.
Case Example Dealing with Feelings about a Worker Leaving the Group
In assuming leadership for an existing substance abuse prevention group, the new worker began the
meeting by asking members to discuss how they felt about her replacing their former worker.
Because the group had been meeting together for over a year, members freely discussed their
concerns about changing group leaders. They also asked very direct questions about the new
worker’s credentials, experiences, and leadership style. During these discussions, the new worker
listened carefully to what members were saying. She chose to be less verbal so that members had
more opportunities to talk. By encouraging members to be more verbal, the worker was able to make
a preliminary assessment of the group’s structure and was able to identify the informal leadership
structure that had previously developed in the group.
In working with previously formed groups, the worker should become familiar with the group’s
structure and its current functions and processes. It is especially important that the worker become
familiar with the formal and informal leadership of the group, with members’ relationships with one
another, and with the tasks that face the group. Information obtained from a previous leader or from
agency records may offer some indication of how to approach the group. In working with gangs or
other community groups for which little information is available, the worker may find it helpful to
gather information about the group. Any information obtained before contact with the group should
be considered tentatively, however, because it is difficult to predict how an ongoing group is likely to
react to a new worker. The worker may also want to observe the group before attempting to
The worker’s presence in a previously formed group will cause adjustments. A process of
accommodation to the new worker and assimilation of the worker into the culture of the group will
occur. In general, cohesive and autonomous groups that have functioned together for some time will
find it difficult to accommodate a new worker and will expect the worker to become assimilated into
the ongoing process of the group. For example, a worker from a neighborhood center who is
interested in working with a closely knit gang of adolescents who grew up together may have to
spend a considerable amount of time developing trust and rapport with the group before members
will seriously consider participating in a recreational activity at the neighborhood center.
Defining the Purpose of the Group
After introductions, the worker should make a brief statement about the group’s purpose and the
worker’s function in the group. When members are not clear about the purpose of the group or the
motives of the worker, their anxiety increases, and they are less likely to become involved in working
toward group goals. Evidence suggests that workers often fail to define the purposes of the group
they are leading (Fuhriman & Burlingame, 1994). Even if the purpose has been explained to
members during pre-group intake interviews, the worker should be sure to restate the purpose
during the first meeting and in subsequent meetings.
Workers should take the lead and make a broad but concise statement of purpose to members.
These statements help members to become aware and focus on goals enabling them to reflect on,
and determine, whether they want to become involved in the group. When stating purposes, workers
should be clear about the role of the sponsoring organization, legal and funding mandates, and any
other factors that may affect group members’ participation. Members should be fully informed about
what their participation entails. Workers should use simple straightforward language, interpreting
complicated mandates in terms of what they mean for members’ participation in a group.
Demonstrating that workers are open and willing to inform members fully is one way to build trust
and a working alliance. Encouraging members to have input is also essential because it enables
members to feel that they are partners with the worker in deciding how to proceed. Workers should
do as much as possible to develop a climate that helps members feel that they “fit in” and are
welcome in the group (Paquin, Kivlighan, & Drogosz, 2013). This includes fostering complementary
interactions, when members are helped to identify with their fellow members’ situations rather than
contrasting or comparing their situations to those of other members. Identification with other
members’ situations helps everyone to feel that they have commonalities that build cohesion,
whereas contrasting or comparing situations can lead to alienation, competition, or the enhancement
of perceptions of difference (Maxwell, et al., 2012).
Case Example Statement of Purpose in a Domestic Violence Group
The following statement of purpose was made by a worker in a new group for female victims of
domestic violence at a shelter: “This group will provide support, empowerment, and resources to all
of you who have experienced domestic violence and homelessness as a result of having to flee from
the person who abused you. This domestic violence shelter has a long history of helping people like
you in similar situations. Here we encourage you to keep confidential all that is shared while at the
same time being supportive and empathic as we help one another heal and transition to a better life
path. Remember, this is a safe space where you can share whatever you want, to the extent that
you want. It is expected that you will help each other and that we will also do our part to support you
in your path to a better life.”
Notice how this statement of purpose encourages members to trust that the worker and fellow
members will engage in a process of healing and growth through mutual aid and support in the safe
environment of the group. The statement illustrates the worker’s attempt to foster a therapeutic
alliance among all participants. It emphasizes safety, security, freedom to participate, and mutual
aid, and explicitly acknowledges members’ rights to share only as much as they are comfortable with
disclosing. The worker can then go on to discuss confidentiality and the safety features in the
sponsoring organization that protect anonymity, which are so important to members of these kinds of
Helping the Group Define Its Purpose
Construct a brief statement of purpose and clearly articulate it to the group.
Present the purpose as a positive statement that includes what members can accomplish.
When possible, have members present and discuss their views of the group’s purpose, especially
when orienting new members to the group.
State the purpose in a manner that enhances members’ “fit” within the group.
Mention the importance of members feeling secure and safe during emotional disclosures.
Emphasize the importance of identifying with members’ situations.
Encourage mutual aid and complementary interactions that build camaraderie and dispel distrust.
Do not focus on differences and conflicting viewpoints in early group meetings
Highlight commonalities and shared visions for a better future.
Discuss the role of the group in relation to its sponsoring agency, stressing the mutual contributions
that can be made by both the group and the agency.
Involve members by asking for feedback, and use this feedback to refine or modify the purpose.
The group’s purpose should be presented in a positive and hopeful manner. In a classic book,
Frank (1961) pointed out the importance of persuasion, expectancy, and placebo effects in
psychotherapy. These factors are also present in group work practice. Presenting a positive, hopeful
image of what can be accomplished in the group makes use of the beneficial effects of these
cognitive expectancies. Rather than focusing on members’ problems or concerns, the worker can
express the group’s purpose in terms of members’ strengths and resiliency and the goals to be
accomplished. Thus, statements that focus on positive objectives and goals, such as “Through this
group experience you can learn to build on your. . .,” “With the assistance of fellow group members
you can get in touch with your strengths to overcome. . .,” or “Through all of our efforts in this task
force we can. . .,” are preferable to statements that focus on the negative aspects of problems or
If the worker has successfully led a previous group …