What happens when young people feel safe enough to talk?
by Max Girardeau
We need to do more to create learning environments where young people and adults feel psychologically safe and prioritise enough time to talk with one another about sensitive topics, such as emotions, relationships, conflict and identity. Doing so has huge benefits to a child’s development, to growing their sense of belonging and nurturing a positive sense of self.
If we don’t, we risk our youth growing up in social environments defined by division, feelings of ‘us & them’, guardedness, conflict, dishonesty and loneliness. Here we explore what happens when young people aren’t supported to talk, the benefits when they do and how to go about creates spaces for safe dialogue.
Growing up I rarely felt safe enough to share with adults around me what was truly going on. This created a dual identity in me. I wore one ‘mask’ with friends and put on another when around the adults in my life – parents, teachers, family members – adapting my behaviour accordingly. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing a lot of what was going on with the adults in my life.
I’m not denying our drive for social belonging, it’s an innate and necessary survival technique. However, when we repeatedly self-censor and deny parts of ourselves that want to be expressed, we internalise the message ‘what I am feeling or thinking isn’t acceptable’. This often results in us believing that we won’t be fully accepted for who we are, or in worst cases leads to self destruction and harm to others…
This self-denial and wearing of multiple masks causes cognitive dissonance and a splitting of one’s personality, which makes the journey to healthy adulthood more complex than it needs to be.
The ‘can of worms’ myth
I so often hear educators say they don’t want to ask young people to open up around sensitive issues as it feels awkward and risks opening up a ‘can of worms’, a ‘pandora’s box’ of further issues that will spiral out of control. When handled skilfully, this is simply not true.
Take Amelia, a 17-yr old participant from a recent programme we delivered who, after experiencing an intimate talking circle with adults, parents and her peers, shared the words below;
“I think sharing our feelings and struggles is something that is often lost in everyday life. I personally have spent a lot of this year since finishing school feeling lost and unsure about myself and my future. To have the ability to share these feelings and express in words my own issues which are so often internal really helped me. Sharing and creating an open dialogue about our problems is so key in showing that we are never alone.
Many of the parents involved expressed how grateful they were to have been invited into a space that encouraged such an open dialogue about the struggles that we face as young people and allowed us to build trust and a feeling of community and kindness among the people involved.”
Creating space to talk nurtures a feeling of social belonging, of deeper trust, and creates the psychological safety that we need to take risks, such as being authentic and expressing our true feelings and beliefs. Quite the opposite of spiralling out of control and becoming emotionally dysregulated then. See Dr Dan Hughes’ work therapeutic work exploring Attachment Theory and the P.A.C.E. model for more on this.
We hosted another series of talking circles with Year 12 students on their first day of 6th Form, many hadn’t met each other before. We asked them to anonymously write down and put in a hat the support they wanted to receive from the school community during their time in college. It was remarkable how many requested more opportunities to talk about personal issues; “I want support groups if we are in need of help” “I’d love more time to spend with our classes and teachers just to talk”, “I want space for small groups of people talking together”….
Discovering our uniqueness
As leading depth psychologist Bill Plotkin argues, the core task of our adolescent stage of life is two-fold;
a) develop a healthy social identity, where we grow a sense of belonging and social acceptance and start practicing giving back to others
b) discover our authentic self – where we find out what it truly means to be ‘me’, what is unique and special about me and learn to celebrate this.
Both are ongoing throughout our lives, but it’s in adolescence that these competing tasks can lead to considerably increased discomfort and inner conflict. Teenagers have a heightened need for social validation and to ‘fit-in’, and yet also want to strike out, explore their individuality and discover who they are. Giving youth the space to talk, to enquire deeply about their personal identity and the kind of relationships they want brings these two adolescent tasks together. An accepting space gives them the confidence and reassurance to be unique, whilst meeting their needs for social belonging and acceptance.
Research shows that it’s a common misconception to attribute resilience to individual grit or capacity. Personal growth and transformation is only possible when our communities provide us with sufficient care, support and a nurturing environment.
In that spirit, having courageous conversations with youth provides a powerful way to support their wellbeing, resilience and grow the safety net on which they can rely. From an education perspective, this responds directly to Ofsted guidance, and models respectful and appropriate adult behaviour.
Helping youth to talk
So, how can we help young people feel safe and have enough trust to talk about what is really going on for them? One way is to harness the power of talking circles. As GP Dr Sophie Redlin highlights in her research ‘Understanding The Role of Talking Circles To Enhance Wellbeing’, talking circles have proven to have significantly wider benefits to our individual and collective wellbeing, something many indigenous cultures have known and practiced for a long time. Dr Redlin points out that the “acknowledgement [through talking circles] of what many people have been through, coupled with a lingering sense of the ‘community protecting its own’ leads to a higher tolerance and acceptance of distress and a reduction in ostracisation and stigma.”
The youth we have worked with often request more opportunities for 1-2-1 chats with adults to check in on their wellbeing, concerns and aspirations. You can offer them this and role model being what psychotherapist Dr. Margot Sunderland calls an emotionally available adult – showing up with acceptance, curiosity, empathy and care can make all the difference.
If we help adolescents to feel safe and trusting enough to share their reality with the adults in their life then we will have helped them to overcome a huge hurdle on their journey to adulthood. We will have set them up to have a healthy self-identity and trusting relationships
The more we practice talking together about sensitive topics, the more we create psychological integration, develop authenticity and self-acceptance. If we practice this with youth, we create a vital safety net that will give them resilience, social belonging and self-compassion, which they can use as a springboard for the rest of their lives.
If you liked this piece, you might be interested in our ‘Hosting Talking Circles’ Training on Friday 12th November 2021. The training is for educators and equips you with the tools and techniques to have compassionate dialogue with young people.