About ten years ago, I went through a life-changing experience. I attended the Breakthrough program at the Caron Foundation. At the time I registered, I didn't know much about the process. I just knew that I was struggling with unresolved issues that were affecting my life, and I needed help. My emotions were interfering with my work, and it was time for some serious self-care.
I set off for a week-long stay in the countryside of western Pennsylvania with 24 other participants. When I called to register, the intake counselor had seemed a bit evasive. When I asked her to describe what we would be doing each day she assured me that the process would be hopeful and healing, but didn't get into details.
What happened over the course of the week was more than helpful and hopeful. It was transformative. But after the first morning there, I was nothing short of terrified. When I learned that over the next few days we would all have a chance to "recreate" our families using psychodrama and other experiential exercises, I froze up. "No way am I doing this in front of all these strangers," I thought to myself.
But luckily the (very skilled) counselors didn't bombard us with too much information. They didn't spend much time talking about the facts - that processing your feelings and problems was beneficial, or that we could trust in the safety of the group. Instead they guided us through, walking with us every step of the way, and allowed each group member to come to those conclusions at his or her own pace.
We were all at a different stage of readiness. Unlike me, there were several group members who were very anxious to complete their psychodrama. More than a few people wanted to go first. Others were open to it, but cautious and needing to see others experience it before them. And then there were the one or two people who I would describe as "resistant."
I was one of those people. By the third day, I still doubted that I would be able to do it. Even as I watched my peers go through this extremely emotional process and come out shining, I had little confidence in myself. But on the fourth day, something changed. I trusted my group more, and I had faith in the facilitators.
They knew exactly what they were doing. I was the last person to "recreate" my family, a deliberate tactic by the group facilitators, no doubt. The two counselors reassured me that I could do it, and that things would be okay. They gently let me know that it was my turn. They didn't give me an out (because I would have taken it), but spoke in a way that conveyed to me that I was strong and capable and ready.
And I did it.
All 25 of us managed to survive that five and a half day experience. Not only did we make it through, we all left feeling stronger, connected and hopeful. It was a difficult and amazing experience watching a group of adults go back and revisit painful experiences, often from their own childhood. If someone had told me right from the get-go what would be expected of me, I may not have done it. As we all left to go home on a Friday afternoon, the counselors there told us to feel free to spread the word to others, but "don't give people to much detail. It's hard to explain this process."
I think back frequently on my week there. At the time I completed it, I was facilitating four-day programs for little kids and their parents. There were many similarities. I can't even tell you how many times I see kids that remind me of myself walking into group. The resistance is written all over their faces. They cross their arms defiantly on the first day when we talk a little about what the group is all about.
But just like me, those kids transform. The same child who never thought they could talk about their feelings is the one that shares the most. The most defiant little boy is the same one who can't wait to be back the next day. The quietest girl finally finds her voice.
I can only hope that the reason for this is the same as what I experienced at Caron. Whether we're working with children or adults, trust is built gradually, not thrust upon the group. There is a delicate balance between giving "enough" or "too much" information. People, children included, need to be honored just for where they are at in the process and not compared to the rest of the group members.
Because although I wanted to be where some of my other group members were - totally open and ready for the experience, I just wasn't there. My counselors respected that, and I sensed their acceptance. It was that acceptance that propelled me forward, but it was their confidence in my ability that actually got me to open up.
I try to give this to the children in my groups. I believe the most effective facilitators are the ones who can accept kids at whatever point they are at in their journey (regardless of our own adult agendas). They don't bombard kids with too many words, but gradually build trust. And above all else, effective facilitators have high expectations. They convey a belief and confidence in each child's ability to work through the tough stuff.
Breakthrough at Caron was recently featured on Dateline. To view the show, click here. Peggy highly recommends the experience!