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Dos and Don'ts of Talking to Teens
Maria Luisa Tucker, Editorial Director, Youth Communication

When a young person trusts you enough to tell you about a big problem, it is both a privilege and a responsibility. What if you say the wrong thing and alienate him? Or make him feel worse than he did when he came to you already distraught? What if you simply don’t know how to be helpful?

As supervisor of a violence prevention program, Rebecca Rubin has had her share of students confiding in her about domestic violence or wanting to talk through past traumas that still haunt them. Providing a safe space and listening goes a long way, Rubin says, but she had some specific do’s and don’ts that she shared with us.

DO


  • Provide a space that is safe, comfortable, and confidential, but be honest about limits of confidentiality, i.e., when you must break it and why.

  • Listen supportively and non-judgmentally. Validate their experience by acknowledging their feelings. (For more on this, read 6 Ways to Be a Better Listener.)

  • Empathize and offer help, such as referrals, resources, or psychoeducation. (Psychoeducation is education about common ways that one may psychologically respond to a traumatic event or mental health issue. For example, psychoeducation about teen relationship abuse might include information about what constitutes a healthy vs. unhealthy relationship. It may also include information about the “cycle of abuse” and what it looks like in a relationship). See our Finding Help section for a list of resources.

  • Ask what the young person needs from you right now. Be honest about how you can and cannot help.

  • Empower yourself by doing your own research about issues young people are bringing to you and consulting with mental health professionals or experts in the area.

  • Empower the young person by helping them to make their own, educated decisions and plans based on what’s best for them.

DON'T


  • Don’t make assumptions about gender, sexuality, or background of the young person and don’t force your own opinions about these issues onto them. Examples of topics that are generally challenging for adults when speaking to teens are sex, sexuality, pregnancy, abortion, gender expression, and race. Despite your own feelings and beliefs, remain unbiased and open to the young person’s own experiences and identity.

  • Do not speak about young person's personal issues in front of other people without their permission. That includes not telling parents if the young person does not want you to, as long as it is not a safety concern or mandatory reporter issue. If your site has a different protocol regarding sharing a young person’s personal information with others then be up front with the young person about the limits of confidentiality as soon as possible. When possible, include the young person in the sharing process if that is their preference.

  • Do not tell a young person that their experience is “wrong” or scold them.

  • Do not give advice unless it is asked for. Sometimes young people just want to express their feelings and don't necessarily want an adult to tell them what to do. If you feel there is something valuable that you would like to share then ask them first if they mind if you share some advice with them.

  • Don’t blame the victim. Unfortunately victim blaming is common in our culture and stems from our fear and disbelief that violence could happen to us or a loved one. As a result of our sense of powerlessness we may tell someone who has experienced violence or abuse that if they had just done something differently (worn something different, said something different, etc.) that the event would not have happened to them. These types of statements shield us from our own fears and our own vulnerabilities and are incredibly harmful to the victim. It is quite common for victims to blame themselves for the same reason: so that they can feel a sense of control over whether or not the abuse or trauma will happen again. Helping young people to find coping skills and safety strategies are wonderful ways of providing support and empowerment. However, what is most important is to relay the message strongly and repeatedly that violence and abuse is never the victim’s fault. It does not matter whether she went to his house when his parents were not home; or he went to a party, got drunk, and walked home by himself. While there are decisions we can make to reduce the likelihood that violence may happen to us, ultimately the decision to hurt another is made by the perpetrator. Therefore, the responsibility is always theirs.

Are there other do’s and don’ts you live by? Email ltucker@youthcomm.org to tell us your best practices for talking with youth.

Rebecca Rubin is on the Here to Listen advisory board and is supervisor of the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, which runs school-based violence intervention and prevention programs in New York, New Jersey, and California.

Luisa Tucker
All Expert Advice articles are written by Maria Luisa Tucker, Youth Communication's Editorial Director, and based on interviews with our advisory board of mental health profressionals.
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(EA-2015-01-07)

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