Advising adults on how to talk to young people about their mental health

Clare Rowland explains her nine-point model for talking to young people about their mental well-being.

Our latest Good Childhood report found that almost a quarter of a million 10-15 year olds in the UK are unhappy with their lives. It’s never been more vital to talk, and more importantly listen, to young people so we can help them overcome the challenges of modern childhood. You don’t have to be an expert to support and talk to a young person about their mental health. The young person is the expert of their own mental health, so let them educate you on how they are feeling. Don’t put pressure on yourself to know all the answers and responses, but see the conversation as a joint effort between you and the young person to explore how they are feeling and consider things that might help them feel better. You don’t need to know everything about mental health, but by simply listening, staying calm, and helping them think through their difficulties, you can actively make a difference. You can use this guide of nine top tips for talking to a young person about their mental health.

Be open and listen
Let the young person know you’re there for them when they need to talk. When they do decide to open up, take time to hear the young person out before jumping in, making assumptions, or asking loads of questions. This should be done empathetically and non-judgementally. It is very important to demonstrate active listening where you use non-verbal cues (nodding/shaking head, eye contact, etc.) to demonstrate that you are actively listening to the young person.

Understand
Take the time to understand exactly what the young person is saying before rushing into solving problems. Stay calm and try to consider what they are saying in the context of their situation. If you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to say so.

Validation
Using sentences such as “it sounds like school is a really hard place for you at the moment” or “I am hearing how difficult home life must be at the moment”, validate the young person’s experiences and demonstrate that you are acknowledging and understanding their feelings.

Curiosity
Sometimes young people will find talking difficult and may need prompts to explore things further. Direct questions can be intimidating and can overwhelm young people. Curiosity often helps e.g. “I’m wondering if this anxious feeling in your tummy happens when you are at school”. This could be useful for young people who maybe have difficulty verbalising their concerns. However, try and avoid telling them how they are feeling.

Avoid telling them they’re wrong
Although curiosity can be helpful, it is important to avoid dismissing what the young person is feeling or telling you. Try not to explicitly tell them what they are feeling or experiencing.

Empathy vs. sympathy
When talking about mental health with young people, you want to be more empathetic than sympathetic. It is helpful to try and put yourself into the young person’s shoes and identify with them (empathy) as opposed to feeling sorrow or pity towards them (sympathy).

Focus on their strengths
Once the young person has relayed their concerns and the adult has gained a decent understanding, it is important to avoid focusing solely on the young person’s weaknesses or difficulties. Take time to explore their strengths and how they can use them to overcome their difficulties (coping strategies, their external support system, friends etc.). Allow them to develop solutions If the young person seems in a place where they want to look forward to practical solutions for managing their emotions, involve them in this. Questions like “Shall we have a think about some ways that we might be able to approach this situation?” or “When you feel this way, what are some of the things you like to do to help you feel better?” are good examples.

Are you trustworthy?
Ask yourself, what would you want someone to say to you if you were sharing the things the young person is telling you. Think back to when you were a young person, what kind of adult did you trust? Reflect on their qualities and what made you confide in them.

Final thoughts
As well as being there to support young people, we need those in power listen to what young people are saying, so that they can make the changes needed. We are calling on the Government to introduce a national well-being measure, to help understand the issues young people are facing. This will help them to take action now, and change things for the next generation.

For more information about Pause, visit www.childrenssociety.org.uk

Clare Rowland is a youth worker at Pause, a drop-in service run by The Children’s Society.

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