Would your pupils ask you for help?

Written by: Mike Boulton, Louise Boulton, James Down | Published:
Photo: iStock

All schools do their best to support their students pastorally, but young people can often resist attempts to help them overcome problems. Mike Boulton, James Down and Louise Boulton report on their research into this sensitive area

Life as a teenager has never been easy but perhaps more than ever before it presents increasingly complex and ever-changing issues and problems for young people to negotiate.

Physical and psychological maturation is taking place against a backdrop of forming and developing relationships with adults and peers, increasing academic pressures, and a general striving for a sense of personal identity. It is no wonder that so many secondary school students often feel overwhelmed and struggle to cope.

Some may appear withdrawn or disengaged socially and academically, whereas others may vent their feelings by “acting out” aggressively or in a disruptive fashion. Academic progress is almost bound to suffer. It is at these times that the support of adults would be most helpful to them, right? Well, not necessarily.

While it has long been known that some teenagers prefer to keep their problems to themselves, recent research has shed light on just how big a problem this is and, perhaps even more importantly, why so many choose to “suffer in silence”.

We believe that this information will enable adults in schools and elsewhere to encourage more young people to seek help when it is clearly needed and to provide the kinds of support that they value most.

In a series of recent studies, we investigated secondary school students’ decisions about whether or not to disclose their personal problems to other people, and to teachers in particular.

We found that between a third and a half of our participants reported that they had not revealed their general problems to their teachers. Even more indicated that they would not tell if problems arose for them in the future. When asked about disclosure of bullying, a common source of distress for them, values were even higher at up to two-thirds.

While this resistance to seeking help was apparent in all sub-groups, it was especially pronounced among boys, students with low self-esteem, and it got stronger as youngsters progressed through secondary school.

But why are so many students reluctant to tell teachers about their problems? Our work has revealed several common reasons, including fear of disapproval from other people (teachers and peers), feelings of being weak and powerless that could come from asking for help, and a strong desire to solve their own problems.

Some of these beliefs may be grounded in reality. For instance, we found that the link between personal problems and distress was strongest among students that had high levels of support from teachers. Put another way, our evidence suggested that teacher support added to the distress arising out of problems for some students.

This was not what we were expecting, not least because it runs counter to the bedrock pastoral principle of providing social support to vulnerable youngsters.

When we put the possibility that teacher help may “make things worse” directly to other groups of students, well over half of them agreed that it was likely to happen on at least some occasions.

We invited students to tell us what might mitigate these undesirable effects of the help provided by teachers. Prominent among their responses was allowing the young person being helped to retain a sense of agency and being in control.

An effective way of allowing this to happen, they told us, would be via the young person having a say in the manner with which help was delivered. We see this as particularly informative, not least because it reflected something that is now recognised as a key facet of healthy psychological development in young people – self-efficacy.

However, when we went on to ask young people how good they were at asking for specific kinds of help with their problems, most reported low levels of this specific kind of self-efficacy.

Our work also suggests that some of the other beliefs that appear to stop students from seeking help may actually be mistaken because they are based on stereotypes rather than reality. For example, the fear of disapproval from peers for seeking teacher help that many teenagers experience may be exaggerated because when we asked students (and teachers) if they actually would think badly of another young person for seeking help with their problems, very few of them said that they would.

Most expressed the view that seeking help was the right thing to do. This suggests to us that for many secondary school students there is a maladaptive “double standard” at work – what they think is acceptable generally for others of their age is not seen as an acceptable thing to do for themselves.

Collectively, our findings make disturbing reading and suggest that more needs to be done to promote adaptive help-seeking among secondary school students. Based on our work, and that of other scholars, we offer the following points and recommendations.

Effective strategies

While it may be with the best of intentions, trying to “pressurise” a young person into revealing their personal problems is unlikely to work in many cases. This may leave an adult feeling frustrated but it is important that they do not show this but instead demonstrate empathy and a non-judgemental stance.

It would seem more desirable to help students appreciate that telling someone about their problems is a mature thing to do, and something that demonstrates strength rather than weakness.

Given the findings of strong resistance to help-seeking among so many young people, they may take some convincing.

Our view is that building such beliefs will take time and should be part of wider efforts on the part of schools to build resilience and self-regulation among all students. For example, we have shown that having older students teach younger students about the benefits of adaptive help-seeking leads to more positive beliefs about it among both groups.

As we have seen, teenagers value autonomy – having a sense of being in control – and so teachers who suspect that a student is facing difficulties might look for “natural” opportunities to invite them to think about who they could go to for support and what courses of action are open to them.

Teachers could offer to help themselves but also remind the young person about other in-school sources, such as staff with pastoral roles and peer-support initiatives. Our work has shown that some young people report that they would feel stigmatised by using these, so highlighting non-face-to-face sources of support such as ChildLine and Young Minds is also likely to be helpful.

Research has also shown something that all teachers are likely to recognise as being true – that teenagers are much more likely to seek help in dealing with their problems from someone they have a good relationship with.

“Good” here is likely to involve trust that arises out of direct experience. Our work coincides with that of other researchers in showing that students value different kinds of support beyond “mere instrumental” help to solve the problem itself. So, if an adult has a track record of showing that they can be trusted to offer emotional support that helps the youngster maintain a positive view of themselves during the period of stress, then they are likely to be approached.

While this might sound strange, especially to teachers who see themselves primarily as educators, being chosen as a confidant and source of help for teenagers facing (serious) problems is a considerable privilege, even honour.

If they do disclose to you, it is worth keeping in mind a couple of things. One is the “barriers” that the youngster has had to overcome to do this and another is that by providing “the right kind of support”, outlined above, you can quite literally help them get their life back on track.

In summing up, many youngsters face significant challenges asking for help from adults, and clearly more needs to be done to encourage and enable them to feel safe and secure enough to solicit the right kind of assistance. Only then can they be in a position to thrive academically and psychologically during this challenging phase of their lives.

  • Professor Mike Boulton (University of Chester) has been researching the links between relationships and wellbeing among youngsters for over 30 years.
  • Louise Boulton is a freelance researcher and has conducted thousands of interviews with young people about issues that have an impact on their wellbeing. She has published papers on their attitudes towards sources of help and bullying.
  • James Down is a child protection officer, with extensive experience working in a range of schools and organisations, including almost a decade within the police service.

Further information

If you would like more information about the research or would like to discuss taking part in future studies with the authors or workshops on facilitating adaptive help-seeking, visit their website at www.ethosinterventions.com

Further reading

  • Down, J.A. et al (2015). Beliefs That Prevent Disclosure of Bullying to Teachers Among Secondary School Students: Low self-esteem is a risk factor. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology for Practitioners, 1(5), 1-7. Full article available at http://ethosinterventions.com/jcapp-volume-1-2015/
  • Newman, R.S. (2008). Adaptive and Non-Adaptive Help Seeking with Peer Harassment: An integrative perspective of coping and self-regulation. Educational Psychologist, 43, 1-15. Full article available at http://bit.ly/1QMiAnG


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