Tips for Creating a Supportive Small Group Environment for Special-Needs Parents

Anticipation was gradually building like the stacking of building blocks we’d play with at home. One lone piece at a time was added gently to balance each piece. One by one, each taking turns, cheering each other on to place that next piece securely without tumbling the tower.

Today’s meeting was one I’d been looking forward to as a building block of relationships with others in the special needs community. Each child was that individual piece in the building of an invisible tower. I’d longed for someone with whom to connect and perhaps with whom to build a friendship with like challenges, joys, frustrations, and maybe even goals.

Assembling in a circle, the 10 of us made our way to the center of a big empty church multipurpose room. Our leader entered the room, found her chair in the circle, and around we went introducing ourselves and our child(ren) story; resembling a counseling session in full force! I’d been asked to go first. I kept my comments short, not knowing how much information was really necessary to share with this group of adults who were more like me and our family than probably most anyone I knew. Everyone was attentive and polite as each person shared; but what happened next totally took me by surprise. An escalation of information began to feel a lot like a “Can you top this” game making me feel the little I shared equaled not having any problems or challenges nearly as important, urgent, or difficult as the people now sharing. One by one the stories got bigger, more intense, and more important than the one before. By the time the merry-go-‘round stopped, I felt dizzy and nauseated. I wanted off. The neat stack of building blocks and people cheering each other on in the building of a project left me wanting to quit and not return.


I didn’t quit. I returned for a good number of weeks. But then, I quit. There came a point I realized my empty tank wasn’t getting filled, and I needed life! I wasn’t opposed to giving life to others, but after a while, my encouragement to others was running dry. I determined to find others in my place of life along with other friends to meet with one on one. Sometimes it was a mentor relationship; other times it was a peer friendship; and times with family was also often life-giving.

When churches and other groups hire or choose the right leader to direct discussions and gather groups for the purpose of encouragement, group members can get the life lift they need. It does happen, but we need be intentional—both the leader and the group participants. A few simple things can help these groups thrive:

  • Determine a leader who will keep on topic and help guide discussions all while caring about the people in the group
  • Keep the group small (10-12) and start new groups if needed after that number is achieved
  • Have a common interest (writing it down for all to see is helpful and keeps the goals in mind)
  • Intentionality and clarity of purpose with a format is key for people to “buy in”!
  • Each participant needs to commit to attend for the time frame decided (example: school year; a college quarter or semester)
  • Confidentiality of all conversations and stories (or people won’t share)
  • Decisions made together by a majority vote (not just by the loudest people)
  • Meet regularly so everyone knows the time and place (and not forever!)
  • The understanding that we all have needs but we can’t all be needy all the time and hopefully not all at once!
  • All need to listen well to one another

No small group will be perfect, but having an intentional direction with some of these ideas in place would have kept the group from trying to top each others stories and been more welcoming, trusting, and engaging—the goal of any small group who has a like purpose.