You know those ‘get to know’ situations when you join a new class or start a new group hobby, and you get asked the ‘tell us something interesting about yourself’ questions, don’t you just sink with panic? ‘What about me is interesting?! I don’t find me interesting!!’ – but you kind of have to think of something anyway. Well, I realised that there is one thing about me that other people are actually interested in hearing about and I thought I would share it with you as a starting point of getting to know me as a new blogger. So, hello! Welcome to my blog.
This is a very detailed and lengthy blog post due to the sensitive nature of the topic. I hoped to give you as much of an insight as possible without leaving anything important out so thank you in advance for taking the time out to read it!
A few years ago, I was a children’s counsellor for a leading children’s charity in the UK. I was studying a degree in counselling and psychology at the time and working with children was the reason I initially decided to go into higher education. One of my first developmental aspirations was to gain some experience working with this organisation and after attending an interview at one of their UK centres during my second year of university, I was successfully offered a role based on completion of their training programme. The training lasted about 8-10 weeks, and despite having doubts and questioning my ability throughout, they passed me through my training with flying colours. I was so proud of myself and couldn’t wait to put everything I had learned both at university and my training into practice.
Life for kids now is majorly different to when I was a kid thanks to the ever-increasing popularity and usage of the internet and social media and I gained an invaluable insight into what issues were becoming incredibly prevalent for them in this day and age. The organisation I worked with took anonymous calls and chats from children, not referrals, and the service runs 24/7. The 5 most important lessons I learned and carry with me are:
1. Children experience bad days exactly like we do
One misconception people have of children’s counselling is that most children that contact the team are being abused – be it sexually, emotionally or physically. You’ll probably be surprised to know that one of the most common conversations I had with children were about their day and how good or bad it had been. Sadly, that’s not to say that abuse isn’t one of the most prevalent topics to discuss however, children spend as many hours awake in the day that we do, and do you know what? They get pissed off.
The idea behind the service – as with any ‘Person Centred’ counselling approach – is that a space to talk freely and without judgement is a valuable and well-received self-healing process. If you can imagine a 10 year-old child going to their parent, who in turn have been at work all day, being shouted at by their boss and dealing with ratty-ass clients, and their child whining at them saying ‘I’m upset because Billy shouted at me in the playground today’, there are some parents out there who will respond with ‘oh come on, stop being silly, you kids have got nothing to be falling out over, just forget it’. And that child learns never to mention that sort of stuff to his parents again.
But what we need to recognise is that children have thoughts, feelings and emotions about situations too. The same way we get mad at a boyfriend/girlfriend about not showing up, or our boss for being a particular pain-in-the-ass that day. And the way that we need an outlet at the end of a long day, so do kids. The problem is that adults see ‘petty’ children’s problems as a novelty but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, kids falling out with their best friend at school or being left out from games in the playground is like a punch in the stomach to them. Their school life and friends are their entire life. They internalize and evaluate feelings exactly the same as us – ‘what did I do wrong? Why are they mad at me? I don’t want them to be mad, I feel sick that I think I hurt and lost a friend’. Kids spend 8 hours a day at school – the equivalent to what adults spend at work. To assume that they will have no valuable feelings about their day is damaging to their confidence to come to you with their problems. Equally, kids may not feel they can talk to you because they feel stupid about it. Instead, being approachable, giving a child the opportunity to speak freely, and not make them feel they are being ‘silly’ but responding with understanding, no matter how mundane their problem sounds compared to how crappy your day was – will help them to feel listened to and help them to understand their own feelings about a situation.
2. There is no such things as a ‘prank’ conversation
You won’t be surprised to hear that there are some kids that do take advantage of the free and anonymous time and services available to them – but not always for the purpose it is intended for.
As a counsellor, there is nothing more disheartening than to have invested time and emotion into a conversation only to come to the realisation 20 or 30 minutes in that the person you have been talking to was not genuinely partaking in the conversation to seek help. Sometimes when kids get together, they think of ways to entertain one another by using free services to see what the outcome is. When I was a kid, my step-brother and I would ring SexLine to see how far we could take a conversation with an advisor. The novelty wore off after a couple of times but my point is that it is extremely common.
Though these cases are common, they use the term ‘testing the service’ when describing what you would usually refer to as a ‘prank call’. The idea is that every single contact – no matter what their intention – is treated equally, respectfully and genuinely. If we, as counsellors, suspected that a child was not using the service as intended, or were creating elaborate stories which we eventually realised weren’t real, we would still continue with the conversation as if the scenario presented were true and try to shut the conversation down unsuspectingly. This would not only help the young person to realise that they weren’t going to get a ‘reaction’ from their counsellor – which is what was expected – but so that if they ever decided to come back to us on a genuine basis, they knew they would be treated with respect and understanding, no matter what. Also, ‘prank’ users may also come into a conversation in order to gain an understanding as to how the service worked, what to expect and how they would be treated before they divulged their most deepest secrets and issues to a complete stranger.
3. They face problems you wouldn’t expect a young person to be dealing with
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to assume you know what issues are going to come up in conversation with a child. We were trained to expect issues such as abuse, bullying, self-harm, depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts etc. But you could not prepare for everything – especially in this ever-changing society we find ourselves floating around in.
My most memorable of these situations was with a school girl. She had met someone at school and started dating him. Sexting was starting to become the ‘thing’ at the time with the then-introduction of Snapchat and the growing number of young people with smart phones. Whilst chatting with this girl, she divulged that this boy had asked her to send him an intimate picture of herself – which she did because ‘he said everyone was doing it and I was frigid and didn’t like him if I didn’t’ (yeah, what a jerk).
Anyway, so she sent this picture/pictures to him and expected him to keep them to himself out of respect for her. Who wouldn’t expect a guy you’ve been seeing to respect your privacy? Well – he didn’t and he began distributing those photos around to his friends, who sent them to their friends, and soon enough they were all around the school. I was mortified and felt for this poor young girl. I was about to start to responding about the issue – how the distribution had affected her and how she was feeling – when she dropped the bombshell that it wasn’t the pictures she was concerned about, but she wanted to know if she could be prosecuted for distributing pornographic material. I was so shocked for this young girl – not only was she having to deal with the seemingly new way of being humiliated by your boyfriend, but she was now having to consider what consequences were coming her way for sending those pictures. And because we had never had that before, I had no idea.
The thing with social media and the internet is that what would be classed as unacceptable and wrong in person or in real life, doesn’t seem to apply when you’re online or on your phone. There’s this physical barrier between you and another person and you can almost pretend it isn’t you in those photos, or you didn’t just say that to someone. ‘Gosh I would never have said that to their face, HAHA, THANK GOD FOR FACEBOOK!… haha.. ha..’ This, sadly, is even more-so the case with children.
As adults, we have lived in a time where social media didn’t exist and the internet was nothing more than using the encyclopaedia for homework and sending your pen-pal in Australia an email using Yahoo that you met in an AOL chat room. Children of today are exposed to this advanced technological world from the day they are able to hold a phone or a tablet. This is their reality – they will never know a world without phones, the internet or social media and they likely know more about it than we already from a very young age. And that’s a scary and worrying thought as to what they know that we don’t because we can’t protect them from what we don’t know or themselves.
4. We discuss their plans to die when dealing with suicidal thoughts and self-harm
Sadly, suicidal thoughts are a very common topic in conversations with some young people. When dealing with mental health, it is important to be sensitive and open to discussion in order to deal with the issues a person is presenting and how this has caused them to feel suicidal.
Being a person-centred counsellor is to show your understanding and empathy through use of words and actions. One way to do this is by repeating back what a person has said – it doesn’t have to be the exact words – but processing it and repeating it back is a way of showing you listened to what they just said. It is also a way for your client to hear back what they just said – because often, they’ve never said ‘that’ before to somebody.
For some young people, they present their issues by saying ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’ – which we would respond with ‘you want to die?’. This would usually make a young person stop and think either ‘What? No I don’t want to die! I just don’t want to be here anymore’ with which we could then progress the conversation onto why they don’t want to be here anymore, what was causing those feelings etc.
For the young people who would respond with ‘Yes I want to die’ or just come out with ‘I want to kill myself’ – we would discuss with the child their plans for dying and in what way they have thought about ending their life. This might seem a little extreme and risky to say to a person that has just told you that they want to kill themselves – but it’s actually a shock to them and makes them stop and think about it. If you imagine telling your partner or your friend ‘I want to kill myself’ – they would immediately respond by saying ‘no, you can’t, how could you feel this way’. But by asking them ‘well, how would you do it if you were to, have you made a plan?’, you’re catching them with the unexpected and inviting them to open up and talk about how they have got to this plan. You are also showing them that they are in control of their situation. Suicide is usually the last step in a person’s mind because they may have felt they lost control on all other aspects of their life and options and so showing them they are still in control is empowering.
The conversation with a child would move from plans, to thoughts, how they have coped until now (e.g. self-harm) etc.
Depending on how the conversation went, we would then move into discussing their situation, support network i.e. family and friends, how they think it could impact on their family, and to maybe consider thinking about it some more before making a decision as they may not have taken these thoughts into consideration. This would go on for as long as the child needed to, and we would hopefully discourage the immediate feelings of wanting to die.
It was an incredibly powerful and helpful tool and really did make a difference to an intense and emotional situation, and if we could eliminate that overwhelming pressure and urge to just end it, the underlying problems could be managed and discussed over time. The key thing was to calm down the child and keep the situation as relaxed as possible to deflect their attention from committing suicide.
5. Abuse isn’t reported to the authorities immediately
When a child enters into a conversation, they usually don’t just spill out what has been going on for them. It takes a lot of time, attention and showing understanding to get to the root of why a young person has come to talk to a counsellor. For a young person that is being abused, telling somebody is usually what they have been warned against doing by their abuser. This still applies when talking anonymously to somebody – especially to such a well-known organisation – hence why some contacts come through testing the system. There is usually a fear there that whatever they say is being reported to the police and that the situation is going to be made a hell of a lot worse.
In reality, depending on the situation, it can take a really long time to find out what the issue is, and we would nit report the matter to the police without the approval of the young person – unless there is an immediate threat to their life. Usually, a child has been dealing with abuse for weeks, months and years and it has taken them so much courage to share and divulge that experience with a counsellor. It takes a huge amount of amount of trust to be able to do that. It is so easy to get sucked in and want to save that child from the evil right away.
But what is much more important to remember is that for the couple of hours we have spent talking to them about it, they have been dealing with it for much longer than we have – months or even years – and have found a way to survive in order to tell us about it. They know their situation better than anybody else, they have risk-assessed their environment, found a safe place to be able to talk to us about it and we must respect their ability to do that. We don’t know their schedule, their family’s daily routine or how life goes on for them in the other 22 hours they aren’t talking to us. If we sent over police immediately after that admission is made, we put their lives in danger and we also jeopardise the potential legal case for social services/authorities to put steps in place. And so, a lot of time talking and record making is started. If the child has a counsellor they prefer and regularly speak to, we keep a note on the child’s account and put on an alert so that every time they contact the team, they speak to their assigned counsellor and notes are kept for a case to be built up. A plan of action is discussed, an understanding of the family set up, routines, persons of trust and patterns in abusive behaviour is documented and only when the child is safe, are the authorities contacted and action taken. The most important aspect in any situation is the safety and well-being of the child.
My time at as a children’s counsellor was incredibly challenging and rewarding. They are an amazing source of comfort and support to thousands of children who find themselves dealing with issues – big and small – every single day. In this difficult world, for them to have a safe space to talk freely and without judgement is so important in their well-being and development. If you know a child who could benefit from additional support and a place to speak to a trained counsellor with complete anonymity, please direct them towards a children’s support organisation. They have unlimited resources, time and care to deal with the ever-growing issues that present themselves to our children – their future can be changed with just some understanding and encouragement with no judgement.
I hope you have enjoyed this very lengthy piece. Maybe this post has made you think more about what our society’s children are coping with, your own children maybe and how you respond to them – you are welcome to comment with any questions or thoughts and please follow me for more content.
*Please refrain from using these tools and try to encourage whomever you are trying to support in seeking professional support from trained advisors/counsellors.