Helping Young People to Find Their Voice
All children need help to find their voice. For some young people, the act of speaking up or speaking out is associated with experiences of being ignored, discredited or silenced. To mark the beginning of Children’s Mental Health Week 2024, adolescent psychotherapist and author Jeanine Connor reflects on the therapeutic process of enabling a young person to believe that their voice matters – and to feel heard outside the therapy room, too.
One of the most important gifts that therapy can give to young people is the capacity to find their voice. Linked to this is the encouragement to believe that their voice matters and will be heard. Children under 18 are usually referred to therapy by an adult – either a professional, parent, or carer. The first story I hear about them therefore reflects the voice of the adult. Sometimes their perspective differs from the child’s a little, sometimes a lot, but I am in no doubt that it will be different.
For an initial consultation, I invite the young person and adult to attend together. Usually this is a parent, both parents, or someone acting in loci parentis. I make clear from the start that I have received information about the young person, but that I very much want to hear about them from them.
Often this request is met with suspicion: it feels unfamiliar, or it can feel like a trick. Children, especially those growing up in care, are used to adults talking about them, writing about them, and sharing information about them. The voice of the child is often missing or ignored. I’m thinking too about young people who have suffered abuse and been told, ‘Don’t say anything’ and ‘No-one will believe you if you do.’ These children (indeed all children) need our help to find their voice.
As with most things, it takes practice. Talking to a therapist can feel weird. In some ways it is weird, and for many young people, it’s a very different experience to any they’ve had before. I’m curious about them. I want to hear all about them. I’m more interested in what they’ve got to say about themselves and their lives than I am in what anyone else has to say. I’m less bothered about the facts and ‘the truth’ than I am about their truth and their sense of reality.
Over time, most young people learn that they can trust me, trust the therapeutic process and trust in the confidentiality of the space. They learn that their voice matters to me and, by association, so do they. This sense of mattering becomes internalised, so that they begin to believe that their voice matters too.
Once this sense of mattering has become internalised, young people feel more comfortable voicing things they haven’t been able to voice before. Frequently this includes conversations about sexuality, sexual experience, gender identity, drugs or self-injury – the stuff that has been hard for them to talk about in a way that will get adults to listen rather than react. Because they’ve learned that I’m curious and that I will hear them, without condemning or condoning what they tell me, it can feel liberating to finally say out loud what they’ve been grappling with internally.
Some young people need help to voice something outside of the therapy room. They might need to find a way to ask for their needs to be met at home or school, which might be something as simple as asking to sit nearer the front in class, or telling their mum they don’t like sausages. Or it might be something that feels bigger, such as speaking up to/or about a bully, or making a disclosure about abuse, or something to do with sex or safeguarding. I help young people to put words to their experiences in the therapy room, which makes it possible for them to believe that they will be heard outside of therapy too. This enables them to believe that their voice matters – and so do they.