Banana Splits - Middle and Upper School Adolescents
By Lila Margulies, LCSW
"I think my favorite part of going to the groups is being able to hear everyone else's experiences. This I think can be more helpful than let's say venting to a friend because you can get other input from people of all ages in high school going through the same things.
"I think I have allowed myself to open up to more people and to take everyone else's advice. Now when things are screwed up between my parents I can actually say something and not only help myself cope but help with the actual problem."
- A Banana Splits student
I run Banana Splits groups for students in grades 5-12 at Friends Seminary, an independent school in New York City. Many people think it's impossible to get adolescents to come to a voluntary group like this, but it's not…not at all. What's important to remember is that starting a group is a trial and error process. What works well in one school or with one group of students may not work in another school. The ways I started and keep running the 5th/6th grade, 7th/8th grade, and high school groups are also different. Different age kids require different kinds of organization or scheduling.
How to announce the group:
At Friends, the entire middle school meets 4 days/week and the upper school meets 3 days/week. During these meeting times is when I announce upcoming Banana Splits groups. I may describe who comes to the group by saying, "You can come to Banana Splits if you live with one parent, or one parent at a time. You can come if your parents are separated or divorced, if one parent has passed away, or if you have always lived with one parent". I will tell students when and where the group is meeting and welcome anyone to at least try it for the first time. I will often have pizza for the first meeting, because, as we all know, pizza attracts kids. I also invite kids to come up to me after my announcement or email me if they have any clarifying questions.
If your school doesn't have these kinds of regular meetings, I would use whatever way announcements are made to students. Some schools have on-line or real bulletin boards. In addition to making an announcement, I will email the students who have been in the group in the past or who I know may be interested. While it's not environmental, I have also plastered the walls and stairwells with reminder notes of where and when the meeting is being held.
When to meet:
There are several times and ways you can meet with a group. In early middle school, when the students don't have a lot of free time, it's nice to see them during their lunch period or an assembly or study hall time. If the group meets during lunch, they can either grab lunch in the cafeteria and then join the group, or plan to bring lunch or order pizza; or the cafeteria can supply them with a simple lunch like sandwiches. With older kids or high school students, it can be hard to find a common time to meet. You may want to check the master schedule at your school and find a period that most students have free. You will most likely not be able to have a time set that all the students can attend. If possible, it's good to meet with adolescents as often as possible, which may only be every 3-4 weeks. Any sense of consistency is great.
When I first started doing my high school group, nobody showed up to the first meeting. I was extremely disappointed. The group was supposed to meet in my office, during a common lunch period, but I said nothing about food to the students when I announced it. So, when I tried again a few weeks later, I announced that there would be pizza and 23 high school students showed up. It was an incredible turn out and a very moving and also fun group.
Activities will vary depending on the age of the group members. With all groups, I always start with a check-in. Students are invited to give the group an update on their family situation. They are never required to talk, but they are always encouraged to respond to other people and give advice. With the older students I do less planned activities and more "chatting". The check-ins will often turn into a conversation among most of the group members. These natural topics that arise from student situations are better than any activity I could plan. However, sometimes it's nice to have something planned for a quiet day.
It is important to explain confidentiality to the students in your group. The group members need to feel safe if they are going to share personal information with each other. In order to help them feel comfortable and trust each other you must set some ground rules. One way to describe confidentiality is to say that whatever is said in the group, stays in the group. Students should know that they are welcome to talk to each other outside the group, but not to share any information with people who were not in the group.
One activity is to have the students break up into smaller groups and come up with a list of questions they have about being in a single family home. Some such questions are, "What do you do if you don't like the person your parent is dating?" or "What do you do if you are in the middle of a fight?" or "Why did your parents get divorced?" Once you have a list of questions from the students, you want to hear some answers from the students. You can take the same sheets they wrote the questions on and hand them to different groups to answer, or you can tear the papers up into individual questions and have them pick them out of a "hat". These questions can be answered one question at a time by one student, or you can ask a question and have it be the topic of conversation. You can introduce this activity as the beginning of creating a question-answer book for future Banana Splits members, and if they really get into it, make a book with them down the road. Long-term projects are fantastic.
Be creative with activities. Listen to what is coming up in your particular group and gear the topics toward what the students want. Doing small, one-session activities like genograms or lifelines is a good start. You can also take activities geared toward younger students and make them more age-appropriate. And as I mentioned earlier, the best activities with adolescents are natural conversations. Giving them the space to share and classmates to listen is the best first step to knowing they are surrounded by support.
Here is more of what they say about Banana Splits:
"Banana Splits, although not as strong as medication (ha ha, just kidding), still helps many people to feel that they are part of a community of friends that really care about them and know what they are going through. It's an opportunity for children of all ages to find people who can help them overcome life problems, such as dealing with the death or divorce of a family member. Not only this, but Banana Splits enables people to make friends and find connections with people they otherwise might not have. It helps to build a strong community of people who really appreciate each other's problems and are really there to help."
"I have been going to Banana Splits since I was 7 and it has been amazing. They have helped me when things at home are falling out and I don't really have anyone to talk to about it. I mean in 4th grade we took cookie dough batter and punched and threw it to get out anger (after, we actually made cookies). Again in 6th grade we made pillows with action words such as "bang" and "pow". Valerie and Lila (and everyone else) thought of creative and helpful ways to express our feelings about our situations. Banana Splits in general helped me cope with my family and showed that I could actually make the situation positive."
"I like sharing personal problems with other kids my age who might feel the same way as I do about my parents' separation issues. I am able to express myself at a more open level and I am comfortable sharing with my peers because of Banana Splits.
Banana Splits has allowed me to hear what kids my age have to say about their personal lives and has given me a chance to reach out to them if they need my help with those problems or vice versa."
About Lila Margulies, LCSW:
I was born and raised in NYC and attended Friends Seminary from 5-12th grade. I went to Skidmore College, where I earned a BA in Anthropology and Sociology. After college I lived in Thailand for a year, teaching English to children. In 1998 I started graduate school at Smith College School for Social Work. When I received my MSW I returned to NYC and started practicing as a school-based counselor. I spent a few months at the World Trade Center Healing Services, working in downtown schools with kids who were affected by 9/11. I began my work at Friends Seminary in 2004 and started a small private practice in 2005.
My parents split up when I was about 6 years old. I often share my own experiences with my groups in a way that helps them know how much I truly do understand about their experiences. The more groups I facilitate, and the more I hear the students sharing and supporting each other, the more I wish I had Banana Splits when I was young.