About the Author: Carey Goldstein was a middle and high school counselor for over 15 years. She continues to advocate for young people in her work at Cultures of Dignity.
We Know Our Teens Are Suffering But Do We Know How We Can Help?
By Carey Goldstein
We know that our teens are suffering but do we know how we can help? Recently, we surveyed our Youth Editorial Advisors at Cultures of Dignity and asked them, Is there a person in your life who asks you how you are doing and really wants to hear the answer? The majority answered yes but admitted they hold back from fully opening up so they won’t be a burden to their parents, friends or teachers. In addition, most feel that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health as well as forced them to look at mental health issues they were already experiencing.
“I think people need to realize the extreme effects of being separated from your peers and having to change learning environments. Although a lot of people and adults around me realize that, I feel like they have not asked for our opinions on how we should cope with such issues.”
How do we help young people in the way that they need? As adults, most of us have lived through a hard time and can integrate it into the rest of our lives. Young people don’t have that perspective yet and for us to tell them it will all be fine feels both counterproductive and ingenuine.
We followed up with the young people and asked, what can we do to help? We learned that most of our editorial advisors are having hard conversations with their friends about serious mental health struggles and they feel ill equipped to help. Often they try to joke and make their friends laugh to move on and forget about what is really going on, at least for a little while. They are looking to us, the adults in their lives, to provide resources. As one student told us, “When my friends come to me, I want to help them, but I don’t know how to put it. I don’t know how to help them figure it out. I don’t know what resources to point them towards.”
A few that have tried to reach out to adults but feel that we go straight into “fix it” mode before we have fully listened to the problem. Adults tend to want to make things right and do it quickly, which can sometimes shut the conversation down before it has even started. One student told us, “When adults try to give solutions, it makes me feel like I have to hide more so I can’t express fully what I am feeling. It makes the situation more difficult. It makes it feel like you have all this stuff you aren’t able to say.” We need to pause and give them a minute to open up.
As professionals that work with young people for a living, we are often the only bridge they have to receive guidance and to get help.
When a young person comes to you and they are struggling, say something at the beginning of the conversation like,
- Do you want advice or just to vent?
- Is this about wanting support or solutions?
The group we talked to felt simple statements like these could be really helpful to get the conversation going. Sometimes they just need to get things off their chest without us running to the rescue. It is important that we stop and ask them how they are and then listen to the answer. Some kids are afraid to bother the adults in their lives with their mental health struggles because they recognize this time has been hard on everyone. This can delay them from getting support when they need it and before issues start to feel unmanageable.
The challenge is in the doing, how do we talk to them? Saying to a young person, “Come to me if you have a problem” may feel to an adult like reaching out but it’s not good enough.
Instead here are things you can say to make the offer of support more clear and tangible.
- The best way to reach me is… (email, office hours etc)
- I am here to listen.
- When you are ready for solutions, I am here for that as well. I may not have all of the answers but I can help you figure some things out.
- I may have to get other people involved or report some of the things you say that involves any harm to yourself or someone else. No matter what, we can figure out what you need
The group of students we worked with were grateful to be included in the conversation. There is a lot going on for them and they want to talk about it. They don’t want us to tell them it will be ok or to just move on, they want more than that. We won’t really know what that means for the individual young people we work with until we ask. The past few years have truly been hard on all of us but we can do this together. Listening and having open conversations about their struggles will hopefully, get the young people we know and love the help they need.
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