Commentary: What if young people find it hard to talk to parents or counsellors?
There are moves to strengthen the support system for students facing mental-health challenges but a keen understanding of how their search for help can go a long way, says an adolescent psychologist.
SINGAPORE: In light of the recent River Valley High School case, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing pushed for enhanced training in mental health literacy and the deployment of more teacher-counsellors.
While welcomed, there is an elephant in the room: Whether young people who face mental health challenges will indeed open up to teacher-counsellors.
In an ideal world, kids will turn to their parents for support when they encounter difficulties. However, in my experience working with young people, some don’t or can’t for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes parents and their children have differing views, like when the child chooses to be in a relationship or friends with someone their family disapproves of. As these evolve, frayed nerves can deepen. Or parents become worried when certain behaviours become concerning.
Problems can arise when concerns are not communicated sensitively, discerningly or effectively. As a result, the child simply ceases reaching out for fear of judgement and rejection.
It's no surprise when instead of trying to see things from their perspective, parents can react negatively. I have dealt with cases where some teens resort to violence in retaliation.
In one case, a parent tried to stop their child from sending text messages in the wee hours of the night daily by cutting off the wireless network in the house.
The teenager, already struggling through a relationship, acted out poorly by damaging household furniture in anger. Parents may feel cutting off Internet access is a small matter, but for a young person, it is a dramatic and unreasonable move. Talking things through could have paved the way for a compromise.
Of course, not all parents deal with their children’s mental health challenges or experience them in these extreme ways. There are those who simply do not know what to do or how to react – thinking these are temporary feelings that will go away with time. I have heard parents say: “It is just a phase, there is no need to talk about it anymore, let it go”.
CAN TEACHER-COUNSELLORS BE OBJECTIVE?
How about counsellors or teacher-counsellors?
In a recent CNA Insider story, students interviewed voiced concerns about relying on counsellors, especially those who can be dismissive and brush aside concerns students might have, or have poor communication skills, leaving students more confused than before.
The story separately highlighted the conflict teacher-counsellors might have in working with students in school.
For one, the duty of psychological care requires a relationship of trust between equals and a focus on a client’s well-being. But an educator has a hierarchical relationship with their priority being a child’s academic progress whereas a counsellor’s priority is the child’s social-emotional well-being.
For that reason, teachers are trained to be proficient at instruction, whereas counsellors’ skills are in empathic listening and close observation of conversation.
People can be competent at both, but it can be challenging to swop hats and remain even-handed. There is also the question of confidentiality. Would students’ confessions be taken as a lack of resilience or academic capability, and seep into their grading for participation in class through staffroom gossip, even if the teacher-counsellor did not take their class?
Worse, when counsellors are class teachers, students may fear that conversations in confidence could be discussed with parents, say during a parent-teacher meeting. These real issues on the ground need to be ironed out.
This pandemic has also made online counselling intrusive in small homes where families spend 24/7 together. A range of service providers have sprung up to fill this gap – from organisations like Fei Yue Family Service Centre to IMH which runs a hotline. Last year, the Ministry of Health said there was a 60 per cent increase in calls in 2020 compared to 2019.
Despite the popularity of online counselling, my own experience is that some youths find it hard to log on in private, especially when parents are home. And they worry about text messages being read.
CAN PEER SUPPORT HELP?
If not parents or counsellors, where does that leave the troubled youth? Good friends can form a type of non-judgmental support group.
They provide security and a sense of belonging that comes from being in a community going through similar experiences.
Puberty and the onset of adolescence can be a physically and emotionally confusing time.
Neurological studies show why youths seek out personal affirmation from people who “get” them during this period.
In teens, the emotional centre of the brain in the limbic system that processes fear and anxiety matures earlier than the pre-frontal cortex responsible for impulse control and emotional regulation. This leaves the emotional sensors in their brain on their own for a while.
In other words, teenagers will have a tendency to think about issues and judge situations mostly by how they feel. They are less inhibited and tend to experience heightened emotions.
Would the Education Ministry consider doing away with the PSLE or implement later start times for schools to ease the pressure off students? We asked Minister of State for Education Sun Xueling these questions in CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.
On the one hand, having a community of friends can be a boon. For many, deep loyalty and a sense that they have to “protect” their friends provide safe harbour for teenagers to share their woes and find release.
But when professional help is lacking and something serious happens – like when a friend attempts suicide – teenagers can feel lost, confused, shocked and saddened. Youths can also be ill-equipped to make sense of troubling situations.
Without the steady, trained hand of a mental health practitioner, youths in crisis can have trouble navigating situations that challenge their beliefs and values. A young person’s brain is still developing and they are still learning.
I recall seeing a client’s social media post saying he was contemplating suicide because of an incident in school earlier that day. It was clear that his friends were trying to talk him out of it.
He shared with me how he finds it hard to deal with criticism. But through our session, we arrived at coping strategies and helped him develop a new perspective to harsh comments.
There is an opportunity for schools to train young people – to learn how to talk to each other positively, to listen with perspective, and discern when to seek out an adult for help. Peers can also learn to offer their trusted parent, caregiver or an adult to their friend in need or crisis, and jointly continue the conversation together.
Understanding a little of the brain biology can help us realise we need to prioritise fostering a positive emotional climate around our children.
Our prefrontal cortex only fully develops around the age of 25, while the limbic system is fully developed about the age when puberty sets in. There is a 10-year window where the brain is going through rapid changes, where fight-or-flight type emotions can dominate and youths are susceptible to stress and anxiety.
A little bit of help and guidance can go a long way. When young people do turn to us as caring adults, it would help if we took their "limbic thoughts" seriously.
To do this, we need to be curious, open and willing to explore new options and ideas. Being open means suspending your preconceptions. When a young person shares something personal, what you say to them is very important.
Listening to why they think in the way they do can go a long way. What they're looking for very often isn't a fixed set of solutions but someone to talk to.
Nicholas Gabriel Lim is Head, Graduate Diploma in Youth Work at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.