“I’m not here for myself. I need advice for a friend.”
This is a commonly expressed justification for a teenager to show up at the office of a guidance counselor or trusted mechaneches. And quite often, after a short time, it becomes clear that the “friend” is actually the self.
Unless it’s not.
Sometimes, it is an actual friend.
In twenty-something years of working with teens, I have had many students approach me to discuss some difficulty a friend is having. Sometimes the friend tags along. Sometimes the friend has asked to get some anonymous advice. Sometimes, the friend has no idea that she is being spoken about.
While clearly there is a person in crisis whose needs must be met, what is happening to the loyal friend who is spending hours listening to the pain and suffering of her peer? How is a 14 or 16-year-old meant to handle the heavy emotions of a young friend suffering from depression, abuse or suicidal ideation?
The answer is: She is not. A teenager is not a therapist. She has neither the life experience, training or emotional maturity to safely and successfully guide another person her own age through a serious crisis.
But young people trust each other and so they confide in their friends, leaving the friends in the uncomfortable, unsure and often frightening position of having to decide how to save them. This scenario repeats itself in every school, camp and social environment in which teenagers are found.
Here are some of the verbal exchanges that make these confidences so overwhelming:
“I’m thinking about killing myself. Don’t tell anyone.”
“______ is bullying me. If you say anything to her, I’ll never come back to school.”
“I lost 20 pounds in a month. It’s so cool. I’m gonna lose another 20.”
“I’m cutting myself. If you tell anybody I’ll never speak to you again.”
“If you don’t______ (help me, keep my secret, etc.) I’ll kill myself.”
Statements like these play with a young person’s mind and emotions. Even for a seasoned therapist, hearing about people’s serious issues is difficult. For a teenager, it is unmanageable.
How do we help our children navigate these situations without becoming overly involved or even traumatized? There are some solid strategies that can easily be learned.
- Talk to teens about being aware of boundaries. Explain that just like we have physical “personal space” there is also a concept of emotional “personal space.” We don’t want people to stand too close, or touch us when we don’t want to be touched; and we shouldn’t allow people to invade our emotional space. Most people are aware of when their emotional space is being violated. Pay attention to this feeling.
- Teach phrases that help communicate uncomfortable feelings. Giving teens language to say that their emotional space is being invaded is key to empowering them to make it stop. The following are a few phrases that can be very useful:
- This is difficult for me to hear. Is there someone else you trust to speak to about this?
- I know someone who can help with this. Let’s go speak to him/her.
- I’m only 14 (15, 17…) and I have no experience with this. Let’s speak to ________ (trusted adult).
- I’m not a therapist. But I will be happy to help you find one/contact one for you/go with you to one.
- Encourage students to have a Mashpia/trusted adult to be their go-to person for guidance when a friend is in crisis. The Rebbe gave us this directive for a reason. Enough said.
- Talk with students about the guilt and fear. Very often, the guilt imposed on the teen is what is driving him/her to continue being involved with a friend in crisis, even though it is overwhelming. Sometimes it is the fear that the friend will harm him/herself, or that the problem will get worse. It is important to help the teen understand that he/she is dealing with someone who needs professional help. If someone is going to self-harm or end a friendship because of what you do, they are not being rational. Threats like these are a warning sign that they need more help than you can offer. You are not responsible for the mental health or life of your friend. No matter how big a guilt trip she takes you on.
- Ahavas Yisroel does not mean putting yourself at risk. Baruch Hashem, we educate our children to be kind and compassionate to others and the lessons are well learned. However, we also know that we are forbidden to put ourselves in danger. Yes it is important to help a friend in crisis; but the definition of help in this case is very clear. It means getting a responsible and knowledgeable adult involved. It most definitely does not mean attempting to manage a friend’s crisis all on your own.
If we provide teens with a safe and non-judgmental space to talk about their issues, they will come to us for guidance when a friend is in crisis. And hopefully, even when the friend is in fact the self.
A seasoned educator with over 30 years of experience, Mrs. Dena Gorkin began her career in special education and has also worked as a certified substance abuse prevention counselor. She is the founder and principal of the girls High School, Bnos Chomesh, located in Crown Heights. Aside from her duties as principal, Mrs. Gorkin also teaches Nach and Bayis Yehudi classes.