I have had the privilege and honour to work with probably over 1500 or more young people in both a college and university setting as well as in private practice. While I work with all ages, including mature students, graduate students, new mothers, older individuals, and families, and I love each opportunity I get to help a new person, I do have a sincere passion in working with young people that I wanted to talk about today, as well as help others understand a small piece of their world when they’re struggling.
One reason I always try to make a point of highlighting that I work with young people is that there seems to be a shortage of therapists who make a point to specialise in this area. I have had many clients land at my door after getting the runaround in the mental health system, trying to find someone who not only likes young people, but is also skilled at working with them and who actually seems to “get” them. After all, every piece of research in counselling supports the fact that the most important thing to create positive change in therapy is the relationship with your counsellor. This means that while a therapist may be the most knowledgeable and talented counsellor in CBT, ACT, or any other approach, if their client isn’t clicking with them, it all means nothing. That therapist-client relationship won’t be able to help that person. So relationship always comes first, and especially with young people.
The reason I love talking to young people so much is that, for them, getting to talk to someone who takes the time to listen and really understand their world, someone who doesn’t cut them off, doesn’t tell them what to do, doesn’t dismiss their feelings, and at the same time has the knowledge and skills to offer them to use in a way that helps them most, can often be rare for them. And if a young person is in the position to have someone in their life supporting them going to counselling (yay to these parents!), these few hours they will spend in someone’s office are thus incredibly precious. So it’s so important that they get a chance to talk freely, openly, and with someone who “gets it.” So to have someone who not only “gets it” but can also maybe help with some evidence-based approaches, different perspectives, and different skills, it can really make a huge difference for them. If I get to be that person, it means the world to me to be able to help in this way.
Understanding Their World
If you are an older person reading this blog and are struggling with how to help understand your young person, I wanted to share a few ideas and perspectives that might help. The biggest thing I wish everyone could know and remember about young people is that everything they talk about, everything that feels huge and important and makes no sense to a lot of older people, is that this is their world, right now, in this moment, and in their world, what they are going through actually is that huge and important feeling. It might not be if it happened in an adult’s world, but in their world, it actually makes perfect sense. It’s sometimes strange to me that some older folks don’t remember all of this when they talk to, about, or with young people because, after all, they were literally that same age once. (I have this theory that the brain likes to reminisce about being young so it chops out all the awful stuff and only lets you remember the good stuff as you age for self-preservation reasons. But that aside, we’ll come back to talking about understanding their world.)
The stuff they are going through, if it sounds dramatic or silly or inconsequential to you as an adult, it isn’t to them. If you, as an adult, see a young person and think, “Oh, this will mean nothing to them in a few years,” – they aren’t thinking of their life in a few years because they are busy living this life, today, right now (same as you). They don’t see or feel their problems as small compared to what it’s like to be an adult, because they aren’t an adult right now in an adult’s world, and they’re just trying their best to get through what they can get through right now. And here are a few of those things they are trying to get through right now to hopefully put things in perspective.
Elementary school: These young people are in a class of maybe 25 or 30 other people, all day, every day, often for 9 years straight, with very little change in that friend group save for a few switches between classes, a few people moving in, and a few people moving away. They spend 6 or more hours every day with those same people, with nowhere else to go if things get bad.
Now think about it – as an adult, in your own life, if you have a fight with a friend, what do you do? You maybe step back for a bit, take some time to cool off, maybe a week, two, or more if you need, then you both can come back to the table, talk about what happened, and move forward. Or, you also have another option. If that friend is repeatedly a problem in your life, you can actively make the choice to not see them anymore. You can reduce how often you interact with that person, or part ways altogether. You can literally even move across the country if you need to. You have different options on how to handle things.
As a young person in elementary school, you simply do not have those options. If you are in a fight with a friend, you will continue to be forced into the same room, every day, day after day, for years, until high school. So when a young person is “over-reacting” to a fight with a friend, a rumour at school, someone that makes fun of them, a boy or girl that doesn’t like them back and now everyone knows - there is no escape for that young person from that scenario. The most they can do is try to eat lunch with different people, or maybe on their own, ask for a seating change, or pretend to be sick from school until it blows over, but sometimes it doesn’t blow over for a very long time. Each day can honestly feel like an eternity when this happens because there is no escape. So when a young person in elementary school is telling you how upset they are because of something that happened that seems small and inconsequential to you in your adult world, something that “won’t matter in a few weeks or months” – remember that each day, each week, each month feels like forever when they feel trapped in that situation.
Try this. Imagine that person you really don’t get along with at work or in a social circle that you have to interact with. Maybe it’s someone from the PTA meetings, but you only have to see them once a week, maybe once a month. Maybe it’s Jenny down the hall in another cubicle at work with whom you have to exchange emails with every few days, and run numbers together for your department. Now imagine that Jenny sits next to you for hours every day at work. Imagine that she is also friends with all your friends because there are only 8 of you girls and you have to all hang out together, and none of you have many friends outside of work because work is all you have time for and you don’t have cars to get anywhere else but work.
Now imagine that Jenny starts telling all your colleagues bad things about you. Literally slow down, stop, and imagine it. And now imagine that your colleagues/friends have never really run into this before so they don’t know what to think; do they trust Jenny? Why else would she say those things if they weren’t true? Maybe your friends are scared that they might be the next victims on her rumour list, so they listen and go along, just in case.
Now imagine you have to go back to work every single day with these people, with Jenny, you can’t quit, you can’t take vacation, you can’t tell the boss because that would be even worse, and now you have to work on a bigger project together with Jenny. And go on an overnight trip for work and stay in the same room as her and a few of your other colleagues. And you can’t even day-dream about quitting because it’s not an option to quit or change jobs. And on and on and on, for years, with no end in sight. This is the torture that can be elementary school.
While more options can open up in high school and then more again in college of university, this same feeling of being trapped can often persist. Then add into that feeling an increasing pressure from parents and relatives, sky high expectations, dating, rejection, comparisons to others on social media, uncertainty, and trying to figure out who you are. Add in trying to navigate the politics of your family as your parents also try to figure out how to parent a teen – which is so much more nuanced and complicated than a child under 10 years old, and parents are often scared and unsure themselves and can often by accident default into old parenting behaviours that don’t work for tweens, teens, and young adults, and the frustration builds on both sides of this relationship.
Now add in a young person feeling that while they are increasingly their own person as they get older, and they want their own identity and their own life, at the same time they have almost no control or say about anything that goes on in their own life – their parents or boss or teachers always have the final call. There is a feeling of helplessness that can permeate this experience and really impact a young person’s emotional well-being. Especially if you add in standard family issues like divorce, parents fighting, grandparents or relatives being ill, differing views of religion, and bigger concerns around pressures of dating, gender or sexual orientation, bullying and social media, partying and temptations of drugs and alcohol, and dealing with complicated social interactions with friends and romantic partners.
There’s a lot going on for young people, and everything means everything because their world doesn’t give them as many options on how to cope with problems when they arise simply by the structure of their world where their self-agency is so limited. A fight is never just a fight, a rejection is never just a rejection – each have layers and meaning because of the structure of their world. Then when you add a young person feeling like no one understands this and that it’s “no big deal,” it can make them feel even lonelier. As an adult, it can be hard to remember what this feels like because you don’t have these same walls around your world anymore and you have more options and freedom on how to cope and how to change your life.
So when young people talk about how upset they are, even when they are having thoughts of suicide when they feel this trapped, this is often at least part of the reason. When it feels like there is nowhere to go, no way out, and their brains are in pain – real, honest, intense emotional pain – to them, in that state, in that world, in that moment, it can often feel like there is no other solution for them. And this is why I am such a huge supporter of having pro-active talks about suicidal thoughts so that they know about those thoughts before it happens to them. So that they can know to understand these thoughts and feelings as symptoms of a larger problem, not actual thoughts that are required to be acted upon. When these thoughts exist in isolation with no pro-active discussion about what they are and how it feels, these thoughts feel so scary to young people and they can feel so helpless that they don’t know what else to do make it stop because no one has ever told them how to handle it. And once it gets that bad it can feel hopeless to talk about it if you haven't already been invited to have that conversation with a caring loved one. And then young people through this alone and in silence because no one “gets it” and this can be life-threatening. Because the older generation is too scared to talk about emotions and feelings. *end rant*
In counselling, this is where we work to realise that there are other solutions and ways to get through it, and we normalise and validate these intense emotions, and we build in safety through understanding what those feelings really are and that they are symptoms of a bigger issue, and not an actual solution in any way. Once thoughts like these can be seen as symptoms - the same way that you get a runny nose when you have a cold, that your brain can have these thoughts when it is not well, you can start to regain your control and get through those dark moments.
So, as an adult, when you hear that a young person is “upset because of a fight with a friend” remember this story. Remember that it’s more than just a fight with a friend, and different from how it feels in your world. It’s a fight that everyone knows about and is talking about and it’s the same people in the same place with no way out and you have no choice but to show up and deal with it and try to get through it often with little or no support and then no one really truly gets what it feels like because everyone tells you that “you’ll get over it soon” but until then, it hurts so much.
Being a young person is hard. Remember to think about what their world is like before thinking they are just being “dramatic” or “attention seeking.” This is their world. This means everything to them. They are living this life, now – not just getting through this part of it in a constant state of “waiting for adulthood.” They are not thinking or living for 5 years from now, because that’s not their world right now. Today is what matters. While your adult brain may think in a different, more long term way, theirs doesn’t, and shouldn’t, and won’t, no matter how much you tell them otherwise.
I could go on, but I hope that this starts the conversation. This is a big, intense, and real world for them, and if you think back, you probably felt similarly at various times at that age too. And if you can flip that switch and remember to imagine what it’s like for them, and really truly work to not dismiss their feelings or emotions just because they are young, that would go a really, really, really long way.
Our mental health system is broken, and there aren’t enough resources, so in the meantime, the only way we are truly going to help the next generation is by getting the older generations to “get it.” To be helpful, understanding, supportive, and wise without dictating to young people. To help them find their own way with understanding, compassion, and by being trustworthy to them and imparting wisdom when you can without dictating to them in a condescending way. If you can be that person in a young person’s life – someone they actually can and want to talk to – then you might just help that young person get through something really tough, and to come out on the other side better, more resilient, and stronger for it.
This is why I love working with young people – I think it’s something I get, something I can help with, and a role that I can play that for some reason, doesn’t seem to be as well-represented in the mental health community as it should be. I love being able to be there and make that connection and help them feel validated, normalised, and then get to help them work to find their inner strength and resilience to get through the tough stuff that they face. If they’re going to see a counsellor and spend that time and energy, I hope that it’s someone that “gets” them, connects with them, and can really make a difference for them. And if that person can be me, it means a lot to me to be able to be that person.
If you know an older person who is struggling to understand their young person, consider sharing this article with them. Every generation needs to work together to understand each other, and maybe this can be the first step in that conversation. Together, we can make this world less lonely, less difficult, and more connected, especially for our young people who often only have us to rely on as the caring adults in their lives.