Sex, Drugs & Social Media: What's the Reality of Counselling Teenagers in 2019?

By Paige Hughes
20 March 2019

After working here for over two years, I thought I had a pretty solid idea of the issues people we worked with faced.

Whilst this is somewhat true and I have a content bank both on my computer and in my head of stories, anecdotes and common issues, an area I had less knowledge about was our Children & Young People's Counselling.

So, I sat down with (very!) experienced Counsellor, Carmel, to discuss the issues Children & Young People are facing today and what Counselling in Schools is doing to support them. I'll let the rest speak for itself.

Thanks for joining me. Could you tell us a bit about you and your experience and how and when you started working with young people?

Right well my experience is, I volunteered for Childline for 12 years, which probably 5-6 years into it, I decided it was something I wanted to do for a career, because at the time I was a legal secretary 20 years, which is a job I never wanted to do, because I did want to be a social worker originally, but long story! So then I went to college to study counselling and after the first lesson, I couldn’t not go back. It was like I’d come home.

I’ve worked in schools mentoring kids, working with children with anger management issues, working with young mothers then I started working here. I’ve been qualified for about 22 years, working with young people the whole time.

So what’s your role here now at TLC?

Now I am employed as a counsellor in 2 schools, one all boys and one all girls…

Who’s easier?

I wouldn’t say, it’s different, different dynamics in the schools. Besides obviously everything you can think of that comes up, a lot of the girls is friendship groups you know and “She’s took my boyfriend” and “She’s done this that and the other” but the boys school, there is more anger issues there and a lot of that is probably violence at home and learning how to be a man. At the boys school it’s a very testosterone filled, rugby playing school. So if you don’t fit into that group and you’re more slightly feminine maybe, that’s difficult maybe.

Even today? In 2019?

Oh yeah! But the differences I’ve noticed from my Childline work, working at Relate and now here, it used to be a lot of bullying and relationships issues, occasionally you would get someone who was thinking of coming out, not sure if they were gay or bi or whatever. Now that’s quite prevalent, it’s discussed in schools the girls school particularly is very good. The boys school do bring LGBTQ support in but a lot of the boys won’t go because they’re worried about the backlash they might get.

They bring in LGBT support services?

Yeah, if they think someone needs it. They can have a confidential meeting but more now than ever, there is definitely so much more discussion now about being trans and being bi and that’s the differences I’ve noticed, we wouldn’t have spoken about that 20 years ago. I’ve had a few students in the girls school that are thinking of transitioning but I’ve not heard anything from the boys school.

And what kind of work do you do with the young people?

In the sessions? Oh my god, anything. Girls tend to talk more, they want a listener. You get the odd one that you struggle with, like pulling teeth but mostly they’re quite happy to talk without doing anything else but with the boys I normally play cards and talk. They tend to open up without realising because when we’re playing cards. We can also use memory jars or genograms which is the family tree - they can be really useful because you can uncover stuff that you can sit and talk for hours about.

It’s just about running with what the kids come up with and being able to adapt, and a sense of humour is definitely essential! When you’ve got a young boy bouncing off the walls rapping the half an hour you’re trying to counsel them, you have to adapt to that.

And make it enjoyable?

Of course! I guarantee the boys always say “Can I play music?” and I say yeah yeah as long as it’s not too loud. “But there’s a lot of bad language in it miss?” The boys are always really respectful if there’s language

Really?! Is that because you’re a female counsellor? Do you think they see you as a mother figure?

Or a grandmother! Without a doubt! With the boys and girls I’ve never been offended by any of them, they’re very respectful and to me it’s the first session making sure you’ve got that connection within the first 10 minutes.

Do you always get that connection within the first 10 minutes?

No not always. I’ve got a very good sense of humour so very much the first thing when they come in is “Come on, did you ask for this or does someone think you really need to talk to somebody?!” and it breaks the ice straight away. I’ve only ever had one boy in school that wanted to go back to class instead. It’s just letting them know that there is a choice there, because at school they don’t have much choice. One boy will only do half an hour and that’s absolutely fine. It’s his choice at the end of the day.

How many sessions would you say is average for children and young people’s counselling?

Ooh I would say there isn’t an average. The shortest probably 3, one girl I’ve got I’ve been seeing a year has actually just gone down to every fortnight now, but there is really good reason. I hope not to be working with them after a year but some cases really do require it.

What kind of cases require such long-term counselling work?

I can think of one girl who is year 11, lovely girl. I need to be careful how I put this… she came to me originally because she found out the man she thought had been her father all her life, in fact wasn’t. It’s been very difficult to get information but from the bits that have trickled through, she’s almost certain her biological father is dead - there was some drugs and stuff involved. Her mum is just a nightmare, the girl is very much treated like Cinderella, she has to do the cooking and cleaning while her mum goes out and does whatever. All her mum throws back to her is that she’s given a lot of money and material possessions. She gives whatever financially but emotionally she’s not got anything.

Are the school aware it’s a difficult case?

Oh god yeah the school are very aware.

But they want you to keep seeing her?

Yeah they’ll go with the girl’s wishes but I’ll only see her now till May. Resilient girl, she’ll make the best of herself despite how she’s been raised by the mother. She’s going to go to college, and then she can move on and live her life the way she wants to.

She’s probably not going to forget you!

I won’t forget her! And you know, you’ve got the others, for a lot of young people nothing is going to change at the home, it’s just maintenance and getting through.

Do different aged children and young people typically present with different issues and concerns?

The youngest one I’ve seen in the last couple of years was 8 and it was family issues, the mum and dad were splitting up. It was very just adapting to that change. I’ve had a 13 year old who’s effected by bullying recently. For 16 year olds – more exam pressures, sexuality and massively worries about social media.

What is the most common worry or concern that a young person has?

Social media – things that are on it, wanting to block people, sexuality, exams

How does that compare to 10 years ago?

There’s always exam stress, that’s a running theme. Not so much sexuality, very rare I had anything like that. Family issues have always been quite prevalent.

Do you think the rise of social media is affecting young people and their confidence?

Yes yes yes yes yes.

Can you tell me a bit about that? What you have found?

The bullying – it’s quite subversive.

When I was first counselling, it was no way would you have your phone on in my room but now I absolutely encourage it if they want to do it because I learn so much about what’s happening. For instance, when you read something on, say, Instagram or whatever you don’t get the feeling behind it so you can misinterpret the intention that that message sent to you. I suggest they block these people. They always hesitate and it’s like - why are you allowing this negativity?

Because they have a problem with blocking?

Yeah because they’d rather know what was said about them, than not know at all. Many of their friends are on the same social media sites, so they hear it from someone else anyway. I can see the positive side of social media though, because I work with some people that are on the Autistic spectrum and it’s a way for them to engage without having to have that physical presence and it’s learning how to communicate.

Do you think the rise of social media and the perfect house, the perfect partner, the perfect hair, make up, life, these fabricated ideal life inspiration stuff on social media, do you see that coming into the counselling room? Is that damaging young people?

Yes, without a doubt. I think if you’re looking at girl it’s like the perfect body, face, nose, eyelashes. I think there is definitely an issue with social media that makes you think you’re a failure if you don’t reach a certain level.

It’s not just the looks is it, it’s the lifestyle.

I certainly see the ones that’s like “Oh I’ve sent this out and such and such has not even liked it” and it’s very much “I’ve got 500 followers when this person’s got 5000” and they question whether they’re not as popular.

Do you think it’s damaging self-esteem?

Yes. With the ones that get dragged into it. I certainly have some that are like well I am what I am and they’re the resilient ones, but then I have some that turn to self-harm.

Is there a lot of self-harm in young people?

The boys will tend to not eat right and do loads and loads of physical activity to achieve the body. Whereas girls might cut themselves, boys will get obsessed with the gym. It’s just another form of self-harm.

Do you see that, this rise of gym culture and different kind of perfect body isn’t it? The big boobs, small waist, muscles, gym bunny, drinking protein, is that prevalent in teenagers?

Protein drinks are bigger with the boys I’d say, I check that they aren’t taking supplements. What I’ve noticed about the girls over the years is a lot of them are joining the gym and are into boxing – thai boxing, kick boxing.

Do you think it’s the “girl power” movements on social media encouraging this?

Yeah, I don’t like boxing, but the girls love it because it gets the anger out of them. The boys get so much discipline from it. I’m also seeing more girls thinking of going into the armed forces compared to years ago.

What about sex and relationships?

The girls are far more likely to give me intricate details, stuff that I don’t want to know but they are very open. Sometimes I have to be careful not to tell them stuff that they might not be ready to know but if they asked me a direct question I would be very honest. You don’t seem to get as much pregnancies now as you did.

Do you think young women and men are more careful?

I think young women now are more careful but I think they’re also, I hope, more choosey. When they’re doing sex education at school, do they actually tell them it’s okay to say no as well? You don’t have to. The girls are like “Oh she’s a frigid virgin” and then the following week it’s “Oh she had sex with someone at the weekend she’s a tart”, there’s no middle way and the girls are the world’s worst for that.

Do you think that teenagers have a better idea of consent than they used to?

Yeah, but I think it’s the pressure that they’ve got to do it is different, because everyone else in the class that says they’ve done so you don’t want to be the odd one out. I think the pressure is there but they can put it on themselves now. When I was growing up, you smoked because everyone else smoked and you didn’t want to be out of the loop.

I bet a lot less of them smoke now.

Very few, a lot of them are very anti-smoking but you’ll still get a few.

What key advice you wish you could give to parents about raising young people?

Listen. Just listen to them and have time for them, don’t pass them off for money. They need your time rather than money.

Listen in terms of listening to their problems and finding solutions or do you just being able to talk more?

Be a sounding board.

Do you think teenagers get an unfair reputation of being difficult?

Yes. Especially when they’re in groups. I say to boys - think about it from the other side, if there’s an elderly lady or a mum with a baby and they see a group of boys on bikes, they may feel threatened. It’s how that looks and then people will judge and judge young people. I tend not to but I work with young people. It’s the people who have forgotten what it’s like to be young that are very judgemental.

What do you like about young people? Say, someone under 10 and a teenager?

I like the honesty of kids under 10, there’s no other side of them, what you see is what you get, but that can make them quite difficult to work with sometimes. I remember one little girl that I saw and her dad was in prison and we never talked about it but we did a drawing of a pussycat behind bars and after that she was alright.

For teenagers it’s the hope, always hope, it’s a temporary place they’re in. I’ve got tonnes of patience for young people, they keep me young.

Are you down with the kids?

Well… I have an understanding.

What advice would you give more generally to young people who are anxious, depressed, worried about the future, struggling?

One of the main things I would say is that when you’re on your death bed you’re not going to think I wish I got an A in my GCSEs. So although you may not pass them with flying colours it’s not the be all and end all of your life.

What would you say to a professional who is passionate about pursuing a career as a young person’s counsellor? What kind of person would they need to be?

A good sense of humour, patient, open to learning, never thinking you know it all, every client teaches you something.

Finally, what are the main things you have learnt from working with young people?

How things are similar to when I was growing up but how they’re different and how open young people always are.

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