“You’re not depressed, you’re just selfish,” her father’s words sank into her bones. In an instant, the world became tinier than it already felt in her restless body. As a 16-year-old already feeling lost in her skin and seeking a way out through peers, self-harm, sex, and substances, she unleashed what she’d been hiding. “I think I need help,” the bravest words a human can muster, became another windowless room, rather than a way out of this burning home crumbling in on itself. Now she knew that she was alone; this was not a safe place to be brave. So she ventured deeper into the fire and prayed that her lungs would someday know the taste of fresh air.
Judgments by trusted adults come in many different forms. When people that girls look up to say, “it’s your fault,” “life is just hard,” “you’ll get over it,” even the well-intentioned, “you’re resilient,” she’s told that she’s alone in this journey. And that’s just not true. There are many spaces for young people to be seen and heard—and it is up to each of us to create more of them.
Each individual has something wonderful to offer youth; perhaps your words have been said before, but not in the way you can speak them. As mentors, parents, peers, teachers, neighbors, and leaders we all have a vital role to help young people through the vast challenges of our time. Being authentic, honoring silence, listening deeply, and asking for help may be a few keys to support our youth—and help heal the young person still within each of us.
1. Be yourself
Although taking on important social roles like mentorship can be of immense value, being who you are is simply enough. You don’t need to do more, be more, or even be healed from your past to provide valuable support for others. Your trials become treasure when you serve others through the lens you now have—and if you’re not ready to share your journey yet, your honesty has the potential to speak volumes more than advice-giving can. You may be the first person to give someone else permission to be true, simply by being yourself.
2. Let silence speak
Mentors don’t have to give advice. Mentors don’t have to have the perfect words. In especially trying times, mentors can let silence be a guiding force. When in conversation, many people feel a need to fill the silence. A “pregnant pause” allows for personal reflection, space to think, and as Jungian tradition suggests—this is especially important for introverts. In the extroverted, “just stay positive” culture in the U.S., holding silence to contemplate, imagine, and reflect from the inside out has lost its value.
Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David challenges this culture that prizes relentless positivity over emotional truth. When we avoid uncomfortable silence at all costs, what we are saying is, “my comfort is more important than your reality.” However, helping youth feel that they’re not alone is more valuable than fixing or filling the silence, especially when they are telling us something that is not easy to hear.
3. Support the person, not just the problem
It’s easy to get tunnel-visioned by a problem—stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, disordered eating habits, and general risky behaviors—and get into the mindset of fixing, solving, and seeking solutions. The addiction counseling strategy called Motivational Interviewing describes this often automatic response as the “righting reflex.” It’s natural as empathetic beings to want to help solve a problem, however, young people aren’t a problem to be solved. Young people are humans needing to be seen and heard.
When we support youth as people—rather than a problem that needs to be fixed—the higher likelihood of them coming to their own conclusions. People will change when they are ready to change, and we can help get them get ready by listening, being curious about their experience, validating their emotions, and affirming their strengths for getting this far. Building an authentic relationship is one of the best ways we can provide sensitive, individualized, and consistent support to show young people they are not alone—and you’re not alone in this work either.
4. It’s ok to ask for help
In your pursuit of non-judgmentally supporting young people, how are you doing the same for the young person within you? There is still a child within who remembers those words her teacher told her, a teen who remembers the words their father spoke. Especially if you’ve had a challenging childhood or adolescence—which many have—this is often the most challenging part of mentorship. This work can bring up a lot that you didn’t expect, and it’s ok for you to ask for help too.
How you take care of yourself, how you heal, how you speak your truth—whatever that may look like on any given day—this is mentorship. When you give yourself permission to be human, you give those around you permission as well.
For all people who feel like these days are too much to handle alone, please remember that there are free resources to help with whatever you are going through. You are not selfish, wrong, or weak for asking for help—you are strong, you have a story that only you can share, and there are so many others out there waiting to hear.
Resources: local and national hotline
- 24/7 National Crisis Text Line 24-Hour Crisis Line: Text 741-741
- 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-TALK OR 800-273-8255
- 24/7 Bozeman Help Center Crisis Line: Call 406-586-3333
- Montana Crisis Recovery Program (COVID-19 specific crisis call center): Call 877-503-0833 (Everyday of the week, 10:00 am – 10:00 pm)
- Montana Warm Line / Non-Crisis Support Line: Call 877-688-3377 (Mon – Fri 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm & Sat – Sun 10:00 am – 10:00 pm)
Originally published in Girl Get After It #ggai