The “tweenage” years — those ages nestled between 9- and 13-years-old — can be tough. The world can become a much more complicated place as children adapt to the challenges of middle school. Their bodies are changing, both inside and out. Their minds are changing, and increasingly capable of understanding deeper meanings of things that used to seem simple and clear. Friendships they’ve had since childhood are changing, and the social landscape can become unfamiliar overnight. School work is also more intense and students are expected to do more academic work on their own.
It’s a lot of transition.
Erin Hunter, Ph.D., wanted to create a program that would help middle-schoolers deal effectively with these difficult times, and to emerge well-equipped to navigate future obstacles. “Book club in general is a fun thing for kids who like to read,” said Dr. Hunter. “But it also offers a way to connect with other people and is a rich opportunity for children to build their coping skills to help them deal with life’s challenges.”
Dr. Hunter, a supervising psychologist at the University Center for the Child and Family (UCCF) who specializes in working with pre-teens, teens, and young adults, tries to find creative ways to meet her clients where they are. By doing so, she said, therapy can become much more meaningful to them. In response to what she sees in clinical practice, Dr. Hunter created Feelings Through Fiction, a group for 9- to 13-year-olds that uses a book club format to work through the social and emotional difficulties of growing up.
“This group uses literature as a jumping point, in order to begin thinking about things that happen to almost everyone that goes through middle school,” she said. It is particularly effective for middle schoolers because reading gives them, “perspective and self-awareness,” she said. Through books, they can learn about how the world works in a safe and low-pressure environment.
In addition to the external pressures of being a pre-teen, Dr. Hunter said children in this age range are beginning the very important process of building their identity. They are learning how to identify what is valuable to them and to make choices for themselves in line with their self-defined values. They are also beginning to define what a friend is and what they value in a friend. In order to respond to these new experiences, Feelings Through Fiction is structured to:
- Equip participants with skills to cope with the emotional and social challenges of middle school.
- Help them begin to identify who they are and what is important to them.
- Provide an environment where their experiences are validated and normalized.
At the first meeting, the group creates rules and guidelines in order to make it a comfortable environment for every participant. Although there is a theme for each week, Dr. Hunter has each child write down something they want to talk about and structures the meeting so it is relevant to the group. Each meeting begins with a discussion of the assigned 1-2 chapters of the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. After talking about the cause and effect of the characters’ actions, the conversation pivots to the more personal: Has anybody else had an experience like that?
After group participants get more comfortable evaluating the actions of the characters in the book, Dr. Hunter helps them transition into thinking about how the fictional experiences relate to their own.
“We ease into it by talking about these fictional characters, and then applying it to our own lives,” she said. She explained that the book club format allows children to feel supported rather than spotlighted as they share their experiences.
“The group helps middle schoolers sift through all the things that are going on, and it helps them plan for how to cope with feelings and difficult social situations,” Dr. Hunter said.
Throughout the eight weeks of book club, participants create an individualized toolbox that includes personalized coping strategies, ways to deal with bullying, and a list of their own social supports. The participants take the toolboxes home and are encouraged to continue to put into practice what they have learned during the group sessions.
Parents are invited to attend part of the first session, which is set up as an orientation, as well as part of the final session, where group members can share what they have learned. Dr. Hunter also shares relevant handouts from each group to keep parents informed.
If you have a middle-school-aged child who could benefit from the group therapy experience and building social and emotional awareness and coping skills, UCCF is taking registrations for the upcoming summer session of Feelings Through Fiction.
Call (734) 764-9466 to learn more or to sign up.
- What: A book club that can help young adults navigate their feelings using the book Wonder as a starting point.
- Who: Children ages 9- to 13-years-old who may find adjustment to changing teen years a challenge.
- Cost: Dependent on insurance. $40 per session without insurance, plus purchase of the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio (or reserving it from a library).
- When: June 1, 2018 – August 1, 2018. Exact time and dates will be determined by participant availability.
- Where: The University Center for the Child and Family office at 500 E. Washington St., Suite 100 Ann Arbor, MI 48105