Counselling young people: what happens when the phone’s off?

Young people come to counselling for a myriad of reasons and as a counsellor, my hope is that each will have a positive experience leading to new understanding and discovery. I first sat in a counselling room when I was a teenager and I am seeing that counselling for young people today offers something it didn’t need when I was 15, something it didn’t probably didn’t need to even five years ago. Counselling today offers something potentially unusual and increasingly important; a space where phones are turned off.

For some young people the counselling room may be the only time all week when their phone is turned off or ignored. Many young people find ample opportunities to check in during the school day and the average 18 year old will check their phone over 50 times a day. At bedtime and through the night, when one might assume we are alone with our thoughts, many teenagers are still checking in with others. (Cardiff University reported last year that more more than one in five teenagers “almost always” wake up during the night to check or post messages on social media sites).

This isn’t about judgement, the digital world is bringing connectivity and enrichment for young people, a generation who are technologically driven and will lead the digital world; exciting times. There is, of course, well documented and oft-commented unease about the social impacts of the digital world and understandable concerns about the psychological damage of cyber bullying and trolling. Young people are charting new waters of connectivity and adults are often left questioning how do we help them?

Young people’s identities are emerging in both the physical and digital worlds and so building a solid foundation for adolescent identity is more complex than it has been for previous generations. When connected through social media (e.g facebook, Instagram, tumblr, yik yak) a young person thoughts, ideas and opinions are open to constant critique; the upvoting and downvoting of the identity you chose to share. And all this is happening at time when our childhood self is stretching out into adolescence and adulthood, often described as being like a standing on shaky ground. Confusion and feeling emotionally isolated can occur simply as part of the natural order of ‘growing up’.

And so, regardless of the reason for counselling, having an hour to connect, uninterrupted with ourself is a rare thing for some teenagers. A place to talk and be heard without judgement or repercussion is uncommon in a world of likes and comment boxes. The counselling room has always offered a space for identifying and exploring inner thoughts, emotions, fears and anxieties but for young people in 2016, it has an added dimension.  The counsellor creates a place of trust and safety for something quite unique to be experienced; the development of the relationship with ourself, a relationship that is away from the popularity contest of likes, favourites and the pressure of pleasing and impressing followers. For many young people it begins a journey of whole-self acceptance, not just for those identities we portray or hide on the screens of our phones.

This article has been prompted by my work with young people but it applies to adults too, especially those embracing digital and virtual worlds.

References
  • average 18 year old checks their phone over 50 times a day: Titcomb, J. (2015) Are you a compulsive phone checker? The Telegraph, 08 September