Guidelines for Allies to Teens

By Chuck Esser, International Commonality Reference Person for Family Work

Teens in Co-Counseling need allies of all ages to help make RC work well for them. We adults who are building relationships with teens, particularly two-way Co-Counseling relationships, need to remember that we are doing it in societies in which young people are oppressed, with adults acting as the agents of the oppression, and that many young people have few experiences of being taken seriously, listened to, and respected by adults.

Here are a few guidelines for adult allies to teens:

1. To have relaxed, aware attention, we need many deep sessions on our own “growing up,” particularly on our preteen and teen years. We need to do the bulk of these sessions with other adults. But some of them we can do, thoughtfully, with our teen Co-Counselors.

2. When being client with a teen, we need to remember the joy as well as the struggles of our teen years. As adults we often focus on how terrible these years felt and how we are still haunted by the feelings. This may be useful some of the time for discharge, but our teen counselors are currently teenagers. They aren’t in our position of having “survived” the teen years and looking back and discharging. They are dealing with the bizarre oppressions teen face in this historical period. So they may need to hear what we loved about our teen years. For many of us they were a time of friendships, new thoughts, new independence. For example, we may have gotten our driver’s license.

3. We need to appreciate thoughtfully. Often after a young person has shared her or his thinking or led an event, adults say something like how “amazing” it was to see someone so young be so smart. While these comments are well intentioned, they are pretty [quite] weird, because they are based on the assumption that young people aren’t as smart, and so on, as adults. Appreciations not focused on age are usually more helpful.

4. We need to be good counselors on addictions. This is a tricky arena. We need to have worked enough on our own addictions (past and present) to have some sense of how challenging it is to stop an addiction. We need to be relaxed yet willing to take a stand on behalf of the person (versus the patterns and addiction). We have to stay clear that with enough discharge a person can make her or his own good decisions about her or his life. And we need to be willing to work openly and honestly on our own struggles with addictions.

It can be hard to stay counselor, especially since many of the sessions don’t happen as agreed-upon sessions. (For example, they may come late at night at a workshop.) It isn’t helpful, as counselor or client, to tell wild stories about our own past drug use, as this can communicate that we think it’s okay or cool [fashionable] for young people to take drugs.

It helps to remember what makes drugs, alcohol, and so on, appealing:

  • They can make bad feelings “go away”; numb a person to the rage, powerlessness, and other effects of oppression.
  • They can make it appear that one can step over embarrassment, shyness, and awkwardness, be more confident and closer to others, without having to go through the feelings that getting close brings up.

We can model discharging addictions. This is much more helpful than the storytelling that is often an attempt to feel cool or belong with teens. We can also hold out that real allies—unlike the pseudo-allies, drugs—can provide long-term closeness and relief from bad feelings.

5. We need to be good counselors on sex. This is also a challenge. Of course the more we discharge on our own early sexual memories and know our own “lay of the land” [where our own distress is], the more slack we will have to be counselors on sex. For most of us, sexual feelings, and maybe sex, were a big part of our teen years and we didn’t get much help with them. So the feelings are sitting there, waiting for an excuse to come up.

We may feel attracted to teen guys and girls, experience the kinds of crushes we had as teenagers. Sexual feelings from our own early years may come up at teen family workshops or in other RC settings. We can welcome these feelings for discharge. But it’s very unhelpful to share them with the teen we’ve attached them to or to make other teens listen to us about them. We need to take them to each other and help each other discharge them.

The freer we can be of sexual restimulation, the better counselors we will be on anything related to sex. We can get to where we are eager to hear about sexual distress because we care about the person, not the topic. We can develop a sense of humor and be relaxed.

If we get confused by our feelings, a good policy is to go back to our earliest sexual memories and discharge there. Our teen counselors will have an easier time listening, and we will have an easier time keeping perspective.

We also need to be aware of the jokes we make during games. Adults are generally much more obsessed about sex than most young people are. We need to be thoughtful, be more counselor than client, during games.

Finally, we can learn as much as we can. We can be curious about and listen to what life is really like now for teens. For example, we live in a period in which Internet sex is a reality and Internet and other pornography are being constantly pushed at young people.

6. We need to like ourselves. When we’re around teens, we may feel all the ways we felt uncool, not cool enough, not good enough, not popular enough, popular but unsure of how long it would last, and so on—all the hard feelings from the oppression that comes down on people in their teen years. We may suddenly feel awkward or worry about the way we are dressed—all sorts of funny [strange] feelings.

When we are clienting with teens, it helps to work on these feelings with our attention off distress. We can notice how likeable and fun and good we are rather than make the teens counsel us on how unlovable and uncool we feel, hoping desperately that they will approve of us.

The more we clean up our old feelings of unlikability, the more we’ll be able to exude how wonderful we actually are, the more fun we will be, and the better our lives will go.

7. We need to work on our feelings about bodies and disability. Teens are under constant scrutiny in terms of their bodies, looks, and what they wear. Disability and appearance oppression have come down, solidly and confusingly, on all of us. If we can work on what came at us (rather than on how we think things are for the teens), our clienting will be cleaner and we will be better counselors.

8. Many of us have feelings about RC, from how our distresses have intertwined with our experiences in the Co-Counseling Community. In sessions and groups with teens, we need to be thoughtful about how we discharge about RC, including about other Co-Counselors. Teens are building their own unique relationship with the RC Community, figuring it out on their own terms, and we need to keep our struggles from contaminating and confusing that process. If we’re in a class that’s covering a topic or policy that is hard for us, we can say that parts of it restimulate us and model discharging on the early things it reminds us of. We are trying to model clienting in an honest and open but thoughtful way. (This is a wonderful thing to do in our lives in general.)

9. We need to understand and welcome the feelings teens have about their parents without forgetting that their parents are human, have fought hard for them, and deserve respect and caring. Young people live in families most of the time, or have families that they have feelings about and need to figure out their relationships with. Most teens still need their parents (or guardians), need help working on their feelings about them, and need allies who can be their strong advocates without forgetting that they love and need their parents.

Most of us had parents and haven’t cleaned up our feelings about them. The more we can do that, and can actually think about teens in the context of their families, the better allies we will be. Allies come and go, but teens have a lifelong relationship with their parents. If we can lend a hand [provide some help], it can change the very structure of their lives and the support they get for the long haul [over a long period of time].

We live in a society in which parents are legally liable for the well-being of their children. Parents of teens are generally excluded from their children’s lives and then blamed for their problems. We need to operate as flexibly as possible in this oppressive society and not set ourselves up for legal battles that will make everyone’s life harder.

10. We can ask teens for their thinking. Because of young people’s oppression, they have not often been asked for it, or been listened to when they’ve shared it. For many of them, embarrassment, confusion, and self-doubt surround trying to share their thinking. Allies can help by asking questions about things that are important to them and listening to their thinking; by starting conversations and then not taking them over [dominating them].

11. We need to think well and flexibly about confidentiality. It is a key part of RC. We all agree to uphold it. We also try to think in a big context about each person and his or her well-being and re-emergence.

In some situations, like when teens are victims of rape or other violent crimes, or are in danger of killing or harming themselves, we may need to counsel them “non-permissively” in the direction of getting away from danger, trusting and telling their parents, and pulling their parents in as allies. We may even need to say something like, “I need to let your mom or dad know what happened to you. I will stay and counsel them and you and make sure that it goes well, but they do have to know.”

One of the few situations, in U.S. society, in which teens have a protected right to complete confidentiality is with pregnancy and abortion. But even here it makes sense to counsel teens in the direction of bringing their parents (or guardian, older sibling, grandparent) in as allies. We can also be willing (or get other people) to counsel the parents or their equivalents. Our job as allies is to help families work better, not compete with parents or counsel young people away from seeing their parents as allies.

Finally, we need to know, and let teens know, that there is help. If something worries us or a teen Co-Counselor, if we or the teen have trouble thinking about a client, if someone discharged with or counseled us in a way that left confusion, we get to go to our RC teacher, the Area Reference Person, or a family work leader and get help thinking about it and moving things in a re-emergent direction.

Confidentiality doesn’t mean handling things in isolation. It means being thoughtful about people. We need to create a place where we can show our struggles, while also keeping people safe.

Chuck Esser

(Present Time 193, October 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00