Excuse me, my mother’s is an alcoholic.

Neil, somewhat reluctantly, walked into my office one day. He had been encouraged by his friend who said “Talk to Nigel – he will be able to help you”. Neil wasn’t convinced.

Neil had spent most of his life living with an alcoholic mother and, since he was around 15, an ever increasingly absent father. Now, at the beginning of his final 2 years of senior school studies, preparing for university, he could see that he wasn’t going to be able to cope alone. So in he came.

Whenever I meet young people who have contacted me for some level of support or advice I basically only ever ask two questions.

1. Who are you?Alcoholic Mother

Of course I understand that question is very difficult to answer. Neil’s response was quite typical “I am Neil”. I then respond with “That’s your name – but who are you?”. If they attempt a second answer it is usually along the lines of “I am a 16 year old male school student”. I then say “That’s what you do – but who are you?”. Most people give up at this point and say “I don’t know what you mean” – or similar.

Depending on the flippancy level of my current mood I ask for their date of birth and then say “On (insert their date of birth here) your mother said “Yikes this hurts!” (Always gets a smile if not even a giggle). “Take me from there”. This encourages them to tell me their story.

Neil is an only child, loving parents, not over-affluent but certainly not in poverty. Both parents are working, Neil is an above average (but not a high flying) student. He’s a little overweight but still active in sports, socially he is well connected – inside and outside of school. [Can you see how he is answering my question and avoiding the topic at the same time?]

At the end of his story – which was often interrupted for clarification or prompting for more information I deployed my second question.

2. So, Neil, how can I serve you?

This killer question will be the subject of a future blog post, but for Neil, it was his opportunity to explain why he had come to see me, what he had to face and to ask what he could do. In fact it was the beginning of a two year relationship that only ended as I left my job at that school. Well – not ended – as Neil keeps in touch through text and online.

But more of Neil’s story soon. Feel free to make any comments below – do you like my 2 questions? How do you start conversations with young people?


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