How to talk to troubled students

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It can be daunting when a troubled student chooses to disclose to you. Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises how to talk so that young people who need your help will listen

When we’re worried about a student, we often want to reach out to them and start a discussion about their mental or emotional wellbeing – but we can sometimes find ourselves unsure how to start.

A frequent concern is that we might make things worse or push them away in our attempt to draw them closer.
To help you feel more confident starting sensitive conversations, I spoke to students and asked them to reflect on what they had found most helpful.

Focus on listening

“She listened, and I mean really listened. She didn’t interrupt me or ask me to explain myself or anything, she just let me talk and talk and talk. I had been unsure about talking to anyone but I knew quite quickly that I’d chosen the right person to talk to and that it would be a turning point.”

It is worth remembering that often we don’t need to find the right thing to say, we simply need to provide a safe space, a little time and some non-judgemental listening to enable a student to open up about what’s on their mind.

Don’t talk too much

“Sometimes it’s hard to explain what’s going on in my head – it doesn’t make a lot of sense and I’ve kind of gotten used to keeping myself to myself. But just ‘cos I’m struggling to find the right words doesn’t mean you should help me. Just keep quiet, I’ll get there in the end.”

This isn’t our story to tell. Let the student tell their own story, in their own words and their own time, even if that feels slow or disjointed. Don’t be tempted to fill the blanks – you may get them wrong and you’re denying the student the chance to engage in a process which will help to clarify how they’re thinking and feeling.

Let the student know they are your number one priority right now

“I knew he was taking me seriously because the first thing he did was to sit me down quietly while he called the headteacher to arrange for someone else to teach his next lesson. That sort of scared me but more than that it made me realise that he actually cared about what I was going to tell him and that he really wanted to help.”

It is not always possible to rearrange our plans for a student in need – but we can do small things that send a message to the student that this conversation matters and that it is our sole focus right now. Turn off screens and spell out the fact that you are focused and listening.

Offer support

“I was worried how she’d react, but she just listened then said ‘How can I support you?’ – no-one had asked me that before and it made me realise that she cared and between us we thought of some really practical things she could do to help me stop self-harming.”

Working with a student to think up some practical steps that could be taken as swiftly as possible to help make their day feel more manageable can feel very positive for both of you. A good framework for this is to think through a typical day and to explore typical triggers and stressors and discuss how these might be alleviated.

Acknowledge how hard it is to discuss these issues

“Talking about my bingeing for the first time was the hardest thing I ever did. When I was done talking he looked me in the eye and said ‘That must have been really tough’ – he was right, it was, but it meant so much that he realised what a big deal it was for me.”

Remember that however difficult this conversation feels for you, it is probably 10 times harder for your student. This might be the first time they have opened up about their issues.

That takes real bravery and also shows a great degree of trust in you – acknowledging that can help them understand that you don’t underestimate the significance and challenges of this conversation.

Persevere

“I think she thought I would never open up. It was probably after she’d outstretched a hand of support about eight times that I finally began to talk, falteringly. If she hadn’t have kept trying and trying I’d probably still be sitting in that deep pit of depression now.”

A student may not be ready to talk the first time you offer to listen – telling them that you are happy to listen when they are ready is helpful, but it can be hard for students to take that step and ask for your help. They are far more likely to open up to you if you proactively offer support. Alternatively, you could also ask if there is anyone else they would feel comfortable talking to and facilitate that conversation.

Conclusion

These are not easy conversations to have – but they can make the world of difference to a student who is suffering so I hope these ideas give you a little more confidence in reaching out to students in need of support. 

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression.

Further advice

Pooky provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. You can contact Pooky via www.inourhands.com


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