In the past 16 years, I have spent time working with teenagers with trauma and mental health issues. In working with these fabulous young people, they taught me a great deal about emotional pain, vulnerability and importance of listening, supporting and not given up on them.

In Australia, approximately one in six teenagers have some form of mental health or trauma related issue. In a classroom of thirty students, it means, that there are seven kids who are affected and of maybe two or three may seek help from a school counsellor of significant adult. The other students are either too afraid or embarrassed to talk or share with anyone and may not feel as though they have a significant adult or person they can relate too and trust. They fear being singled out, ridiculed and ultimately bullied by others.

As a result these kids often become behavioural concerns and get labelled as defiant, the trouble maker or “the school refuser”. Families then become embroiled in the battle with School, Education systems’, and the Courts, all with the best intentions but often with an authoritarian approach to managing the situation. All of this adding to the traumatic experience for the child, which impacts on their relationship once again with their family. The crisis circle is spinning around and around.

Having worked with these teenagers, they all express a genuine willingness to want to change their circumstances but struggle to get that kick-start. What they taught me was that if you empower them to make decisions and listen without judgement, then it is amazing what they are capable of accomplishing. Often these teenagers struggle to connect with adults and they feel unsafe and constantly under threat. This threat comes from the emotional feelings they pick up from others around them. People who just do not understand what they are experiencing and who make them feel different. They get told “to get a grip on things” or to “build a bridge and get over it” and it is far from being that simple.

From my experience what is helpful, is to ask them “what do they want to do”, and to listen and encourage them to problem solve with our help. To develop a plan with two or three practical strategies that is easy for them to enforce so that they see success and growth in what they are doing. When any adult is working with child who has experienced trauma, it is critical to acknowledge that the change process will take time. It requires supportive adults who are prepared to journey with these kids. Adults who have the endurance to be patient, positive, energised and do not give up when there is a setback.

Any child who has had a traumatic experience cannot manage the change on their own, and it is unrealistic to expect them to bring about change without assistance. By providing adult support, wisdom and positivity is so valuable and when there are setbacks, focus on what they have achieved no matter how small. Then problem solve what more can we do together to get to the next step. Progress is never smooth or linear there will be moments when it’s two steps forward and one step or more backwards. The key is to reflect on on the backward steps and highlight what has been achieved, what has been learnt, and to use what was learnt for the next two steps forward.

The research evidence into mental health states that the brain is capable of repair and healing and that it is possible for the brain to develop new neuron pathways, and therefore create the opportunity to learn, adapt and change. If a safe and secure environment surrounds the child and the adults who work with them believe in them, while the memories of events will remain, the pain will diminish.

I also found that the language, I used with these kids makes a huge difference in how they engage with you. There has to be dialogue and a tonality that is soft, calming, and non-threatening. Avoid emotive language, as well as blameful or judgemental statements because it alienates and further disconnects the child.

To force a child into compliance and work with what the adult’s plan can be a lost cause. This does not work well at, all plans with these children must involve them, and it needs to be kept simple, practical, and realistic. They must be able to achieve some level of success from the plan and what adds the icing to this, is acknowledgment they receive from the adults.