How Counselors and Teachers
Can Help Troubled Students
There are always words more dignified
–writer Anne Lamott
Regardless of what type of job you do with youth and children, a part of that job should include noticing youngsters who may be suffering through unspeakable events at home. So, whatever your role with children, the information contained in this issue is critical, perhaps even life-saving for your children who are living with terrible pain and sadness.
My name is Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I've spent my whole life learning everything I can about troubled students, and I lecture and teach on the topic all over North America. I have also written books and created online courses on the topic.
When a child is 6 or 16, keeping a secret may seem like the only option when life gets scary. So, you may not be able tell from the words you hear from the youngsters in your classroom or office, but the number of children living with "bad secrets" might shock you. Although sometimes the child's behavior may give a hint of what goes unsaid, here are the best guesses as to how much pain children may actually live with. These numbers are only guesses drawn from research, but no one knows for sure, so feel free to disagree with the guesses. These numbers are offered to illustrate the high frequency of serious family problems that may exist.
Kids may not talk about it, but estimates are that about 15% of students may struggle with substances, or have a family member who struggles. In some regions, this number may seem low so adjust accordingly if alcohol and drug abuse are of particular concern in your area.
About 12% of your students are severely emotionally disturbed, or have a family member who is facing this problem.
The biggest problem facing your students in terms of frequency may be this next problem. A surprising 20% or more of youngsters live with sexual abuse or incest. More precisely, 1 in 3 of your girls, and 1 in 5 of your boys live with sexual abuse or incest. Of all the problem areas that students don't talk about, this problem may occur the most– but be the least likely to be disclosed.
At least 15% of your students– or others in the family system– live with verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse.
These problem areas can and do overlap. A child can be living with both beatings and incest, and also have an alcoholic parent, for example. These numbers may document what you suspect: that you are seeing more and more troubled students who cope with very serious family problems.
You already know that when a student discloses, as a youth professional, you must report the abuse to the proper authorities. More commonly, however, you have only suspicions with nothing concrete to support your fears. Here are some strategies to use with children who may be carrying such a heavy load that it may make it difficult or even impossible to successfully teach, counsel or help them.
Strategies to Help Troubled Students
Would You Tell?
It is critical to understand why children don't tell the secret of what is happening at home. Here is a way to give you that insight: Name all the things that you care about the most on earth. You probably think of family, pets, your home, and friends. That is what the child can lose by telling. That's why so many kids don't tell. This understanding may sometimes help you clarify what is going on when you are not sure what is happening with a child.
Before Anything is Said
You may want to be sure that your youngsters know the ramifications of telling before they tell. For example, at the start of the school year, teachers can tell students that if necessary, they are able to help with serious problems from home– and specify what types of problems that means. But, consider if that statement needs to also include honestly revealing what can happen next with regards to reporting requirements, and what consequences can result. Make sure that you use this strategy in a manner that is in keeping with the policies at your site, and that implementation is done in an age-appropriate manner.
Children may need to know what could happen if they disclose so they won't be devastated to later discover that they went "from the frying pan to the fire," saying "I never would have told if I knew what would happen!" At our workshop, we hear countless tragic stories of children who are not removed from perpetrators after disclosure and are harmed or killed; and we hear about children whose most private woes become front page news, and so on. If your child protection system– like many– might struggle to offer good help, consider telling the child that. Ideally, non-mental health workers should cover this information with the help of a counselor. Your goal is to be sure that students know how to identify adults who can help during times of crisis, and to honestly convey the results that the adults would likely produce.
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These Conditions Must Apply
If you do want to be available to help children who suffer, what can you do if you are not a counselor? First, if you do get a disclosure, get a counselor to help right away. Second, you can create an environment that feels safe enough that a deeply distressed child could trust it to accept help. There are a number of conditions that can create that safety. Here are just a few of the most important: Children want confidentiality; they need to know that their problems won't be blabbed everywhere. They want to know that they will have a say in what happens next. They want the adult to know what to do to help, not become upset, overwhelmed or agitated. They want to have a chance to say what they want to say without being cut off or sent away. They want to be treated with respect no matter how "horrible" their story.
You may feel that you just want to teach 7th grade, or just do recreational activities with kids, because that is the type of work you signed up for. You may have never anticipated having to possibly become involved with terribly difficult problems from home. Those feelings are completely understandable, but they may not fit our contemporary times very well when so many children live their lives in fear and pain. Although it may not be written on your job description, perhaps everyone who works with youth, needs to be attentive to the needs of troubled youth. If youth workers can't see the pain, then who will?
So many students in crisis later lament that no adult ever seemed to notice or care about what they were going through. You could.
Strike a Balance
You may wonder how you can do your job when working with children who are devastated from what they endure at home. Here is a simple guideline to maximize your effectiveness with your distressed children: You never abandon your mission but you don't accomplish it at all costs. That means that you provide accommodations to the student when she appears distressed, and you increase your expectations at those times when the student appears more functional. If you can strike that balance, you can best offer your service to the troubled child without adding to the woes that the child already shoulders.
We have thousands more in our books, online courses and workshops. The smattering of resources listed in this issue are just a few of the solutions we have. Find more on this topic in our Child's Guide to Surviving in a Troubled Family, and What Every Girl Needs to Know About the Real World books and ebooks. When you are struggling with your troubled, sad, withdrawn, and distressed students, think of Youth Change Workshops. We can help!