For many years my work included talking to young people and helping them with their issues in life. I worked in a variety of schools (government, independent, faith-based) predominantly with students of high school age.
Reflecting back over that time these are the main problems they wanted to talk about – not in any specific order.
By this I am referring to boyfriend/girlfriend relationships – or in some cases the lack of them or their unexpected ending. Sometimes I would speak with one of the people involved, sometimes both together, sometimes a blend of the options over a period of time. Should I finish with him/her? How do I keep the relationship alive? How do I end it? How do I know if this is love? These, plus many other questions, were thought through and sometimes they even made a decision.
From time to time (please note the sarcasm) a young person would raise a problem they were having with mother, father or both. Some specific areas of unreasonableness and lack of understanding were: bedtimes; computer use; attendance at essential parties; boyfriends/girlfriends (see above); any friendships; curfews; pocket money; school work; tidy rooms and the list could go on. Clearly they wanted an advocate for their cause and sometimes they found one but at other times they could see that I shared some of their parents’ concerns.
For many of the students it was their first major encounter with grief and they simply didn’t know what to do or what to expect. In some cases the grief was over a family member – a grandparent – and they didn’t feel able to talk to their parents without causing more pain from them too. Other times it was a general sense of grief for a natural disaster that claimed many lives or the death of a family pet.
Schoolwork and deadlines are causes of stress in a young person’s life and a number of them don’t cope well. When it is exam time they came knocking on my door and when they were the end of school / university placement exams the stress peaked. Incidentally one of the regular questions was concerning school-wide communication – more specifically was why 4 teachers gave concurrent deadlines for projects – something I could never work out myself.
As young people get older the petty squabbles of life tend to continue and often escalate. Friendship groups would splinter and ostracise some people – they would come to me. As there was no apparent logic or reason for the split the most often requirement was time and patience. After a relatively short time the dice would roll and they would be invited back in (also with someone else being pushed out).
I applaud the massive efforts by many individual teachers; schools; students and organisations to ‘end bullying’ – but I fear it is a goal that cannot be achieved. Bullying isn’t an individual or small group issue rather it is one of human nature. What we can seek to do is work with those being bullied and give them resilience skills and ways to cope. More importantly we should work with the bullies and help them change their ways.
John wrote on Lucas’ school diary (names changed) that Lucas was gay. Lucas was off school for 3 days and he came to chat upon his return. Incidentally we are still chatting and Lucas is now 26. Not every chat was about being bullied because of sexuality rather more were on the topic of their feelings. Was it Ok to be gay? Should I ‘come out’ and how do I do it? How will my parents react. Scott ( a young man I met whilst he was in prison) believed them when he was told he must be gay because of the way his cheek bones were!
This one was a perennial and not just around subject choices and career time. Occasionally the talk would be about the end of the world but more often it was about what job they might get; would anyone ever love them enough to marry them; should they have children and other such topics. Many of them were totally unanswerable at that point in their life so discussions centred on confidence and decision making.
Neil would often text me around 7:30 in the morning to check that I was going to be in school that day. He was anxious about coming to school and also about the bus ride but if he could see someone when he got to school then he would come. Many times I said I was there but by the time Neil had got to school the anxiety had gone. Of course it wasn’t always that easy for everyone. Anxiety could emanate from almost all of the other things mentioned here (plus many more) and wasn’t easy to cope with.
I admit sometimes these young people were instructed to see me but others did come because they had decided to reach out for help. The joy of releasing someone by explaining anger was not wrong was great. Then we could work on how they responded when angry – they could see that this was more under their control.
The list could be extended but the response was always the same. They wanted someone to listen; someone to care; someone to suggest options rather than to tell them what to do.
It was, and still is, an immense privilege to be allowed into the lives of young people – something I am ever grateful for – even after continuing to be trusted over 20 years after our first ‘chat’