Self-esteem - respecting young people

What is a teenager worth? Are they worth less than a young child or an adult?

A lot of the challenges and opportunities that our young people face centre around what they feel they are worth and how they deal with those feelings. How easy is it for us to lose sight of the fact that we matter; whoever we are and whatever our age; we matter.

‘Young Minds’ an organisation that deals with the issues that teenagers face have come up with a comprehensive list comparing high and low self-esteem. I will not share the whole list but just to give you an idea:

High self-esteem

  • Make friends easily and are not anxious with new people.
  • Will try and solve problems on their own but will ask for help if they need it.
  • They are proud of their achievements.

Low self-esteem

  • Lack confidence.
  • Have a negative self-image.
  • Avoid new things.
  • Compare themselves to others in a negative way.

This is just a very short introduction to a very complex subject. What follows is a case study, based on composite cases which does not reflect any particular client, to try to exemplify this:

Max’s Story - the dance of the seven hoodies.

It was a really hot day in June, a young man aged 15 let’s call him Max – referred to a counsellor by his school and his family’s social worker. Max was referred as being ‘impossible’, ‘no way forward for him’, his brother, two years older than Max, already well known to the police for anti-social behaviour, being heavily involved with drugs (using and pushing) and manifesting a high level of violence against his parents, Max and his little sister. Max as a result of this was seen as aggressive and unable to deal with any figures of authority, police, school and social workers to name but three. Max’s language was peppered with colourful metaphors that could have been seen as disrespectful and abusive – however, this was the way he talked it was never perceived as being done to shock or being out of character with how he spoke to everyone!

Max has to sign in, his Mum brings him in and comes mainly to introduce Max and sign permission slips. Already there is a question in the mind of the counsellor as Max treats his Mum with respect and is thoughtful of her – makes sure she has somewhere to sit while waiting for him – another Max is emerging already. So... Max enters... it is impossible to see his face as he is wrapped in a series of hoodies, over the course of his counselling it seems as though with each layer of information he shares a hoodie comes off, but at this stage it is impossible not to think – he must be boiling hot. Would it be a good thing at this stage to ask him to take off some of his jumpers as he would be much more comfortable? The simple answer is no, part of the respect that he needs to be shown is to respect that that is what he needs to do. It is part of his teenage uniform.

In that first session, the first layer, Max seems keen to share what he is feeling, again, as with how the counsellor has seen him with his Mum, a different Max is starting to appear. When asked why he thinks he is there he replies that his brother is heavily involved with drugs and has been violent towards his family and he has felt that he had to get involved physically to help the others – he has been knifed, punched and thrown down the stairs, but he is keen to share that he does not feel it is his brother’s fault and he needs help too. Max also shares that he was there at the sudden death of his Nan who had a massive stroke when Max was visiting he was 10 at the time this has traumatised him and he was very emotional when sharing this. This is already showing a sensitivity to how other people feel, an empathy for others that the information shared from the school and social worker are not seeing in this young man.

The second layer comes away when Max arrives one afternoon in a towering rage. His deputy head has confiscated his phone, ‘OK so what?’ your inner voice may be saying –he shouldn’t have his phone at school anyway. Well that is true but on exploring what had actually happened the story is quite different and shows that this young man feels that whatever he does he has no voice it turns out that; Max’s Mum had got permission for him to have his phone at school and on silent but switched on, as his brother was appearing in court charged with assault, Max had tried to show the deputy head his permission slip but the judgement had already been passed and the deputy head could not be seen to lose face and listen to what Max had to say (the counsellor suspects that it was not being said to the deputy head in a totally reasonable manner and would have been peppered with strong language). Max, as he shared this incident, became much calmer as sharing the incident had taken away some of the rage – maybe being listened to made it seem that justice was served? He had refused to hand his phone over and had been extremely abusive to his deputy head. We talked about what he could have done differently and eventually, Max came to the conclusion that if he could have kept calmer he would have been much more likely to get his own way –and keep his mobile with him. He decided that he would try not to get wound up by the stupid petty rules, he was going to walk away next time and leave him shouting at himself. It still was not possible to see Max under his hood (and now sunglasses) but and this seemed important he had come up with a strategy for dealing with what seemed like an insurmountable problem. Max had come up with his own coping strategy and appeared much more relaxed it seemed that, metaphorically, another layer had been taken off.

It was not always so positive one day Max came in and slumped down in the chair he always sat in. By this stage, level three hoodie, he was still wearing his hoodie but it was back on his head. He burst into tears. Not expecting to ever get to a stage where he felt comfortable enough to do that he was asked what was wrong. His girlfriend, Amy, he sobbed, she had got pregnant and she had had an abortion without talking to him at all. He knew that it would not have been likely that they had the baby – but what really upset him was that he was not asked. He also had a memory of being the only person in the house when his mother had miscarried when he was young and he had connected the two in his mind and was genuinely distressed. At the end of that session, he expressed his gratitude for having someone to listen to him and not trying to do anything to help – just to listen. This was the first time that Max had been able to express his feelings without feeling that he either would not be believed or would be laughed at.

He was now at level four. At this stage Max is about to go into year 11 and the school, heavily encouraged by his mother, had been persuaded to speak to the local college and has arranged for him to spend three out of the five weekdays at college doing a general building placement which is going to give him an NVQ level one. On this day Max is just wearing one hoodie and it is pulled back from his face. Suddenly Max is starting to feel that he is able to achieve things. He is able to do things his way and thinks that he can manage a more disciplined environment without resentment. College for his has been a very different experience – he doesn’t have to wear a uniform and has more autonomy – if he doesn’t attend a class it is his loss and even the exams in each subject he seems keen to pass.

Max is now coming to the end of year 11 – so what is next for him? Max arrives for his session and is looking very pleased with himself. This is level five hoodie. When he is asked what has happened he says that his Mother has been talking to a family friend who runs an audio visual company all around the Southeast and this company is looking to offer an apprenticeship and they would like Max to attend an interview and if they get on OK. If they do, they will start his training with a reasonable salary as soon as Max leaves school. This is not the boy who came along with several hoodies and whose face was not visible this is a confident young man who rarely uses bad language and puts into practice with real aplomb all the strategies that he has learnt over the last eight months.

This under normal circumstances would probably be the end of the work that is done with this young man but... it is not the end of the story. Almost a year has passed and we have to assume that all is going well for Max, when, out of the blue, his Mother gets in contact again and asks if Max can come along for a top up session. This is the penultimate level - level six Hoodie. This can sometimes happen in work with young people so it is with a degree of trepidation that the appointment is set up. What is the counsellor going to see? Will all the hoodies be back in place. No, not at all. What he shares is amazing - his best friend Davy has developed an inoperable tumour on his brain – what Max goes on to share is a genuine compassion, understanding and empathy with his friend. Max, this reportedly impossible young man, visits Davy every day. He spends time after work going to see his friend and helping Davy’s mother and girlfriend to find a way to supports the last months of Davy’s life in a way that is truly altruistic. While Davy is still able, Max organises (and pays for) a holiday of a lifetime for Davy in Florida hoping to achieve some of the things on Davy’s bucket list. Yet what he want from the conversation is not praise he wants to find a way to deal with the grief and loss he feels.

He attends one more session and he asks if he can show how he is grieving by playing a rap song that he has written for Davy sharing the love he has felt for his friend – as he says goodbye he has on a just tee shirt and is bareheaded. He stands up to leave for what may be the last time and asks if it is ok to hug. That is the seventh hoodie lifted.

Max has learnt to live his life for himself and for others, he has had some really tough situations that he has dealt with in a way that can only be described as admirable. He has changed the path that he walks on and can hold his head up high. He respects and is respected. Go you Max!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, TW18 4AX
Written by Clare Francis, M.A. PG dip BSc (Hons) MBACP
Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, TW18 4AX

Clare attained her masters degree in relationship and family therapy from the University of Hull in 2011. Clare works with families, young people and individuals. Clare also manages a thriving private practise which she currently runs from Twickenham, Windsor and Staines. She has also worked for Relate since 2008. She is a Member of the BACP.

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