New caregiver orientations are important for three reasons:
- They help new caregivers feel safe
- They minimize disruption of the group and
- They help leaders understand the new caregiver's story, potential needs, and possible challenges
New caregivers need to feel safe if they are going to show up and talk to a whole group of strangers about what may likely be their most traumatizing life experience, finding out their child has been sexually abused. An orientation meeting, whether in a group or individually, provides an opportunity for leaders to establish a relationship with the caregivers before the first group meeting so that when the caregivers join the group, they feel like they already know someone. The meeting also provides the leader a chance to discuss how the regular group meetings are structured so that there are clear expectations on the part of the caregiver which in turn makes them feel more comfortable and minimizes disruption to the group.
Establishing a clear structure for the support group is important because it creates a sense of safety for new and existing members of the group. They know exactly what to expect and when and how the meeting will progress. They know what they should and shouldn’t do and that they can expect the same from other members. They know they can rely on the leader to keep the meeting within the structure that has been set and bring it to a close on time. And existing members understand when and how new members will be brought into the group and that although the dynamic will change when new caregivers join, it will be done in a way that is expected and still feels safe and allows the group to return to the normal routine and structure quickly. There is so much chaos in caregivers’ lives as a result of their child’s trauma, it helps to create a time and place where the chaos ceases even though the topic of conversation is difficult.
An orientation meeting between the leader and new caregivers also provides the leader a chance to learn more about the caregiver:
- The story of their child’s abuse
- The caregiver’s current emotional state
- How the child (and their siblings) are doing
- The dynamic within their immediate and extended family as a result of the abuse
- What their current support system is outside the group (therapist, friends, family)
- What kinds of resources they may need at this time
- How their story is similar to and different from existing members
- The challenges the child and caregiver are currently facing and
- The potential challenges a parent may have in participating in the group (need to leave early, can only attend every other group, tends to interrupt or ramble, etc.)
Learning these things ahead of time will help the group leader be prepared to meet the needs of the new caregiver, manage their behavior within the group, and reaffirm how their participation will benefit all members of the group, new and existing.
So let’s get into what I have learned about the logistics of successful orientations.
Below are some key elements of a new caregiver orientation. I encourage you to share this structure with the new caregivers ahead of time to set expectations about your discussion and at the beginning of the discussion itself to remind them. And of course, I encourage you to use it as your guide when hosting an orientation.
- Introduce yourself and your role
- Welcome the new caregivers and acknowledge that it’s a big step they’re taking to participate, that you’re proud of them, and how good it will be to talk with other caregivers who have walked this path before them
- Let them know that the group’s approach is to focus on how their child’s abuse is impacting them, the caregiver, and the family this week and look for understanding, encouragement, and resources that will help the family move forward versus focusing on the abuse itself
- Explain how today’s orientation discussion will be structured (basically this list)
- Explain how the regularly scheduled support group meetings are structured and how they differ from the orientation (skip the upfront introductions and split the time evenly among participants)
- Explain the guidelines for healthy support group interactions (mute yourself until it’s your turn, minimize comments during other parent’s allotted time, if you want to offer encouragement, feedback or a resource at the end of another parent’s time ask the leader if there’s time for you to share and be succinct, respect that everyone is doing their best and may not make the same choices as you, during your time focus on what you are going through this week and ask for what you need from the group)
- Provide more detail on your story and why you are passionate about leading this group
- Ask the existing members to introduce themselves and share their stories including who in their family was abused, by whom, and where they are in the process
- Invite the new caregivers to introduce themselves and share their story starting with who in their family was abused, by whom, where they are in the process, and whatever else they want to share in their time – their biggest challenges, what they hope to get out of the group, a specific question they have or resource they are looking for today, etc.
Note that it is important that you set a specific expectation of how much time each existing and new member has to introduce themselves and share their stories. It’s easy for caregivers to start rambling and lose track of time, especially new participants. So you have to manage their time, don’t expect them to.
The process I use is:
- Take the total time of the meeting (say 2 hours)
- Subtract the overview time (10-15 mins)
- Subtract a buffer for your responses and overrun (15 mins)
- Subtract the time for new caregivers (15 mins each)
- Divide the remaining time by the number of existing caregivers (typically 3-5 mins)
For this time allotment process to work, you will need to limit how many new caregivers join at any one time. Unfortunately, this could create a waiting list but time management is essential to keep from running over while ensuring the orientation provides connection and value for all members.
Remember, we are sharing what has worked for us for your consideration. Take what works for your organization and modify the rest as needed to meet your mission, resources, and local laws.