By Gail Heaton
Are you looking for a new way to bond with your children? A way to help your family to learn to come together when things aren’t going as well as you had planned? One possibility is to utilize an adaptation of the “Nurture Group” idea, part of the program, Trust-Based Relational Intervention, TBRI®. A Nurture group is an organized group teaching relational and regulation skills through play. They are intended to build a connection between children and caretakers.
All nurture group activities are designed to give children opportunities to practice the four skills necessary for healthy relationships, according to researcher Jude Cassidy.
- Receive/seek out nurturing care
- Give nurturing care (physical and emotional)
- Negotiate your needs (develop voice)
- Be autonomous
TBRI® uses nurture groups in children’s group homes, day camps, and as a therapeutic intervention in families caring for children from trauma backgrounds. Nurture groups in these settings have been done successfully for wiggly and unfocused younger ages all the way up to surly teens. Keep that in mind as we get into the details.
You can adapt many of their ideas for your own family to build family cohesion, as well as teach relationship skills. You will be able to have fun with your family while teaching and training on the principals of regulation, playful engagement, connecting, and correction, which are the pillars of TBRI®.
The adaptation of this group activity to your family is simple. You can take the basic principles of Nurture Groups and turn the event into a family night. The evening is loosely structured around setting rules, checking in, skill-building, giving and receiving nurture, teaching time, more nurturing, talking about feelings, and closure. I’ll talk about each of these in turn.
Setting the ground rules.
As with formal nurture groups, first, you need to set the ground rules.
- Stick Together – Everyone must pay attention and participate.
- No Hurts – No hurting anyone physically or emotionally by actions or with words.
- Have Fun – This exercise is about having fun as a family and bonding together.
Go over these rules each time you gather together. Many families meet weekly; others find that once a month or every other month works best with their schedules. Once the rules are explained or reinforced, you begin with a simple check-in.
Ask questions such as:
- Tell us something that no one knows about you
- If I could be any animal I would be?
- The silliest thing I have ever done
- When I grow up, I want to be (parents answer with their dream job)
- The best and worst part of the day (Highs and lows)
You may have noticed that these are ice breaker types of questions, usually reserved for strangers meeting for the first time. These questions work in families too because they are non-threatening and not too deep or personal for kids who may not be used to this type of family activity. These noted above are just suggestions; use what will work in your family. One way to engage teens is to have them come up with a new question or two each week.
Pick an object from around the house that can be easily passed between family members. This becomes your ‘talking stick’. Explain to everyone that when they hold the object, it is their turn to speak. Some families use a fun item such as a large feather or light-up wand. Enlist the help of your children to come up with something new each time you meet. The sillier the better! Laughter is a language even teens speak, so don’t be afraid to get goofy with them. Kids never have to participate and if goofy is not their thing, that’s ok.
Regulation skills are a must for families caring for kids from difficult beginnings. Everyone can benefit from practicing deep breathing, doing stretches or wall pushups, or utilizing pressure points on the face to act as a calming activity when emotions are running high. One example of a facial pressure point is called ‘the magic mustache’ because you put your index finger under your nose and press. The magic mustache really works because pressing under the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down. Any one of these are ways that can help calm down when stress begins to build and before things get to the dysregulation point. Some families keep bubble gum, weighted blankets, and hand fidgets on hand during group time, as these also are calming activities.
To practice the new calming skill, you first have to get everyone hyped up and dysregulated. Musical chairs, running around, jumping jacks are all great ideas. Once the heart rate is up, then each participant can practice one or more of the new calming techniques.
Personal space and boundaries issues can be worked on through the use of hula hoops demonstrating how close or far away someone might need for optimum comfort. The hula hoop boundary (front of the hoop) can be adjusted to reflect what is optimal for each participant.
Giving and receiving nurture.
Nurture is the next part to focus on. Because this is often the most difficult for kids coming from a trauma, abuse, or neglect background, you will break this part up into two sections, with a fun teaching time in between. The idea is that there is not too much ‘closeness’ for too long, for those who may be uncomfortable with receiving or giving nurture. For the first part, you will practice giving and receiving care with one another, pairing up with the person sitting next to them. You will take a stash of band-aids and ask each pair to take turns asking if the other has a physical or emotional hurt. The partner asking the question then puts a band-aid on the hurt. Note: for emotional hurts, they can place the band-aid in an easy spot such as the arm or heart.
It is suggested that when asking where the hurt is, the asker establishes eye contact and speaks in a gentle voice. The pair switches to the other partner and repeats the process.
Fun with teaching ‘right way/wrong way’.
Again, because the previous exercises might be something some of the children in the family are not used to, it is good to take some time now to step back from intimacy and have fun learning the ‘right way/wrong way’ to do something. In this segment, you will be teaching ‘right way/wrong way’ for some scenarios common to your children’s experiences. For example, perhaps there is something that happened this week between siblings that you could address, maybe something that you often see your kids doing or saying that you want to support them to work on.
“Wrong way/right way” is a great game to use with puppets or acting out. The participants show the “wrong way” and the “right way” to do something. For example, what is the wrong way/right way to respond when your sibling comes into your room without asking? What is the wrong way/right way to act when told you can’t do something that your sibling can do? Use what you already see happening in the family to practice doing the right/wrong way in a silly exaggerated manner. This disarms the shame in being ‘caught’ messing up and gives everyone an opportunity to practice the ‘right way’ while having fun together.
Back to nurturing through feeding each other candy.
TBRI® utilizes feeding one another as a proven way to bond as well as show care and nurturing for one another. This part allows children to practice giving care to someone else, receiving nurturing care from someone else, negotiating their needs, and practicing their autonomy. Interestingly, this has been done successfully with teens residing in group homes! This is especially great for siblings who have been at odds with each other during the week. Make it silly, to disarm any nervousness they may have in interacting with one another on this level. Gently encourage participants to maintain eye contact with one another during the feeding.
Select a food or candy that each person enjoys. Cheerios or Lifesavers , or other foods that can fit on a straw are great examples. Have them take turns again, respectfully asking the other, “Can I feed you this piece of candy?” Allow each person to take turns feeding and accepting candy from one another. A respectful answer of, ‘no, thank you’ is all that is needed to be allowed a pass.
Time to talk about feelings.
We’re getting close to the end. Everyone has had a great time, most are feeling closer and safer with one another now. This is a great time to talk about feelings, which earlier may not have the best time to do so. Toss or roll a ball and share something that makes you sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc. This helps teach the importance of naming feelings and normalizes big feelings.
Close by reviewing the rules again and include some sort of closing activity. Perhaps you can develop a family handshake, do a ‘hand hug’ (taking turns squeezing hands around a circle) or some other sort of activity that signifies you are all in this together. Some families may wish to close in prayer or in reading some meaningful scripture or other material.
Once you have the basics down, feel free to make it fit your own wonderful family. You can discuss with your family how the first group went and make changes based on the feedback. This can be something the whole family looks forward to, as well as a way for you to teach important skills and life lessons.
Don’t force it, don’t make participation mandatory. And if utilizing all of the above, (which is how the formal groups are run), seems too much for your family, start small. Your teen who spends all their time in their room may need to be coaxed into the full-blown activities. You know your family best. This is the full program, but your family can benefit from any adaptation you deem most suitable.
I’d love to hear how it goes when you try any or all of these activities. And if you use puppets, post pictures in the comments!