Eleven Ideas about School Support for 
Students who frequently request emotional support and experience intense emotion

There appears to be a subset of teenagers who are frequently overwhelmed by feelings such as anxiety, hopelessness, anger, depression, jealousy and a sense of insecurity, and who frequently seek support in dealing with these feelings.  These students often feel attached to one “carer” and seek support from this carer several times a week or more.  They may seek support face to face, or via email/phone/notes.  They will often confide to the carer thoughts or acts of self harm and they may disclose traumatic past experiences such as sexual abuse.  They may communicate feeling desperate to talk with the carer without having to wait, and sometimes refuse to talk with other people.  The “chosen carer” often feels anxious and overwhelmed (and sometimes frustrated) by this subset of teens.  Sometimes these teens, particularly if they sense the carer is frustrated or becoming less available to them, will “switch allegiances” and find another carer to seek support from – and even become very angry themselves at the carer’s “betrayal”.

It can be very difficult to support these teens because of their intense emotional states, self destructive behaviour and high degree of need.  Some ideas in working with this group are below.

1. Remain calm and compassionate.  This is easier said than done of course, but it is important to try not to become frustrated and impatient with the teenager.  Although some teens behaviour might appear to be manipulative at times (some people describe these teens as “attention seeking”) it is useful to remind ourselves that these teens do not choose to have brains that work this way.  Their desperation for comfort and soothing comes about because they are not able to do it themselves, and because the reward pathways in their brain have been set up so that they crave this comfort and support.

2. Tell the teen that you want to support them in the long run – for as long as they remain in the school system and not just for this month.  Explain that in order to offer this long term support, you need to look after yourself and put some limits on how frequently you can speak with them, and how long for. 

3. Explain that these limits are designed to help them find support from a number of people, not just yourself, and to also to help them soothe themselves as well – so they are not going to have to rely on other people to feel better.  Explain that this is hard thing to do, and that thye might feel some rejection in the short term, but that even if they feel angry or rejected – you are committed to supporting them.

4. With the teenagers’ input, create a plan for who they can contact for support at each point in the day: morning, afternoon, evening, weekends and overnight.  Include phone counselling hotlines, staff members, friends and family.  Include times at which school and staff members are available and times in which they are unavailable (for example evening/overnight/weekends).   Within this plan include limits on the number of times per week you are available, and the length of time you are able to speak to the student.  This needs to be done in a compassionate way, emphasising for the young person that you want to make sure that there is always someone they can speak to – but that it is not always you.

5. Make a date to review this plan – for example, after a month – you may need to make adjustments, add other limitations and extra supports to the plan.  Often this group of teenagers will look for other carers within the school community to support them if there are limitations on the support you provide them. This is fine, provided the teenagers doesn’t overuse this support – and so this also needs to be added to the plan.

6. Also create a written list of ways the teen can soothe themselves when they are distressed.  Do this together with the teen.  It might include options like reading, listening to podcasts, going for a walk, watching a favourite DVD and so on.  The teen should have this list easily accessible – preferably on their phone and/or a written list to keep in their bag.  Regularly ask about, praise, affirm and reinforce the use of this list.

7. Tell the teen up front that you cannot keep secrets. If they tell you information which puts them (or someone else) at risk, or if they tell you about past abuse, you must tell someone else about this in order to keep them and others safe.

8. Come up with a plan to deal with times in which they feel like they want to hurt themselves.  This list should roughly cover the principles of move, mix, tell; in other words move your body and do something rather than sit and think (walk, go to school, play sport, get some homework done etc), mix with people and be around others (go out in to the lounge with family rather than sit in the room, go back into classroom to be with others rather than sit by self, pay attention to the conversation with friends rather than zoning out) and tell people you are having thoughts of self harm/suicide (e.g call a help line, tell a parent)

9. Put in place some guidelines about how you respond to the teen via email/written communication. I normally suggest that you tell the teen they are welcome to give you information via this medium, but that you cannot respond to it and instead will respond face to face.  To avoid late night calls for help that you cannot respond to, I also recommend you tell the teen that your email is only checked during school hours. Instead, the teen is to call helplines or reach out to parents outside of these times.

10. During supportive counselling with the teen, while still maintaining an empathic and caring stance, focus on increasing positive behaviours rather than just listening to expressions of pain and distress. This is a tricky line to walk:  we want to the teen to know that we care deeply about their pain – but that we know that simply talking about it repeatedly will not be useful for them.  Calmly and with care express your sorrow that they are going through this, and then gently move the conversation on to what they might be able to do to distract and soothe themselves at this point.

11. Get support for yourself in dealing with these tricky teens. Talk through situations with others, get permission (if possible) to talk with any treating therapists and/or parents. If permission isn’t given, then talk about the teen anonymously with colleagues to get ideas about how to respond.

Please feel free to email me (kirriliesmout@developingminds.net.au) if you would like any clarification of these issues or want to brain storm through supporting a particular student.  If you would like to know more about the counselling work we do with students, click here.