How to have an open conversation with a young person

Bullying. Suicide. Online safety. Concerns like these can be hard to talk about with the young people in your life. But talking can also be an important step to showing them that they’re not alone.

Having a frank, open conversation can often give a young person the perspective and compassion they need when things seem to be overwhelming or hopeless, and can help them prepare for the challenges they may face every day.

That’s why we’ve created this section of our website. Here, you can read tip sheets with strategies to address some of the most common challenges young people face today. You can use these tools to help the young people you care about. And hopefully, these resources can help you feel better prepared to start a conversation.

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What is bullying?

Bullying is any negative, aggressive behaviour that hurts, humiliates, demeans, frightens or excludes someone.

Bullying can come in many forms, including name-calling, rumour-spreading, pushing, shoving and more. Bullying can affect all aspects of a young person’s life, including their feelings, relationships, self-esteem and sense of safety. Bullying often occurs between young people who are close in age. Sometimes, individuals who engage in bullying behaviour experience bullying themselves.

What are the signs?

If a young person is experiencing physical bullying, you may see visible signs on their body (such as scrapes or bruises). But other forms of bullying — emotional/psychological, social, online, discriminatory — can be more difficult to identify.

Young people who experience bullying may have changes in their behaviour. They may become angry or withdrawn, spend more time alone, seem unhappy or irritable, talk less or even have nightmares. If you notice a sudden change in behaviour or mood, it’s important to help the young person in your life by starting a conversation.

Types of bullying

  • Physical bullying includes things like pushing, shoving, kicking or pinching.
  • Emotional/psychological bullying includes things like insults, derogatory comments, name-calling or teasing.
  • Social bullying includes things like targeting someone in particular, spreading rumours or manipulating friendships to make someone feel left out.
  • Cyberbullying includes things like spreading hurtful messages or emails, or creating websites to make fun of someone.
  • Discriminatory bullying includes things like harassing someone based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender identity, religion or anything else perceived as making them “different.”

If you know a young person who is experiencing bullying

It’s important to remember that young people who experience bullying are often embarrassed about it and may not want an adult to get involved. Try to adjust your response according to the situation, what’s happening and how it’s affecting the young person. If the young person’s safety is at risk, let them know you’re concerned. Together, you can contact the necessary authorities — the school principal for example, or, in more serious cases, the police.

The most important things you can tell a young person who’s experiencing bullying include:

  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “It can be stopped.”
  • “It’s OK to ask for help.”
  • “You have a right to feel safe — there are people who can help you get the support you need.”
  • “I will help you, or find someone who can.”

If you know a young person who is bullying others

Young people who bully others may be trying to deal with difficult feelings (e.g. anger, sadness, etc.) or painful experiences (e.g. trauma, neglect, etc.) of their own that they don’t know how to cope with positively. Many young people who bully are also the targets of bullying themselves. If you discover a young person has been bullying others, it’s important to talk to them about it.

Bullying is often about control and manipulation, and can take a toll on a young person’s well-being — both the target and the person engaging in bullying behaviour. Encourage the young person who is bullying to try to help others (instead of hurt them). This reinforces and helps to builds skills in positive, empathic behaviour. You can suggest the young person get in touch with a professional counsellor at Kids Help Phone to talk about ways to address the behaviour — either online or by phone. They can also learn more about bullying and its impacts on our website.

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

What is cyberbullying?

If someone is using technology to intimidate or harass a young person, that young person is experiencing cyberbullying. Cyberbullying may include:

  • harassing or threatening someone through text, email or social media
  • posting private or embarrassing photos online or sharing them among peers (including nude or sexual images)
  • creating a website about someone in order to humiliate them
  • being verbally abusive or offensive to other players when gaming online
  • creating fake social media accounts that ridicule someone
  • stealing someone’s password and then impersonating them online
  • spreading lies, rumours or secrets online

Cyberbullying can be really hard to deal with, especially since messages and images are hard to control once they’re online. And because of the anonymous nature of the Internet, certain forms of cyberbullying — like spreading mean and hurtful rumours — can happen quickly and discreetly, sometimes before the young person who is being targeted even knows it’s happening.

How can I tell if a young person is experiencing cyberbullying?

Young people who are experiencing cyberbullying may:

  • seem upset when online
  • avoid a computer/device or quickly turn off a computer/device when an adult(s) approaches
  • seem reluctant to go to school
  • appear withdrawn, anxious or depressed

If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to talk to the young person directly.

Talking to a young person about cyberbullying 

It can be hard for young people to share that they’re experiencing cyberbullying for many reasons (e.g. they may be afraid of having their device/Internet privileges restricted, losing friendships, feeling embarrassed, etc.). But discussing the situation with a safe adult is the first step toward getting support.

If you think the young person in your life is experiencing cyberbullying, it’s important to approach them about it. You could say, “I noticed you seemed upset when you were on your phone today, is everything OK?” If you’re the parent/caregiver of a young person who is experiencing cyberbullying, it’s important to reassure them that the harassment is not their fault, and that you’re there to support them through this difficult time. Remember to commend your child for reaching out for support, and let them know you’re there for them every step of the way.

It’s also important to know there are things young people can do to help protect themselves from cyberbullying. The following tips can help young people stay safe online:

  • learning about privacy settings/reporting features online (e.g. on social media, in online games, etc.)
  • keeping passwords private, even from people close to you
  • being mindful of what is posted/shared online (e.g. learning about the risks of posting/sharing sexual photos, etc.)

To help reduce the harm of cyberbullying, you can teach these five steps to the young people in your life:

  • Don’t retaliate: it may be tempting to be mean in response to the person who is cyberbullying, but it’s better not to retaliate and escalate the situation. By staying calm and not retaliating, you may avoid giving the person who is cyberbullying the satisfaction of knowing they’ve hurt you.
  • Be assertive and stand up against bullying: if it’s safe to do so, you can tell the person who is cyberbullying that it’s not OK. Use neutral language that calls out the behaviour, not the person. For example, you could say, “Calling someone ‘X’ is not OK. I’m going to hide this comment because it’s hurtful. I encourage others to do the same.”
  • Save: make a copy of the message(s) or post(s) before deleting. Having a record can help you report what happened.
  • Block: most websites — especially social media — will let you block users whose behaviour is inappropriate or threatening. You can search online for ways to block by platform.
  • Tell: always tell a safe adult if you’re experiencing cyberbullying.

What to do if you know a young person who’s experiencing cyberbullying

  • Be supportive: avoid minimizing the young person’s experience. Listen to their concerns and reassure them that you’re on their side.
  • Act quickly: young people need to know that you can and will help. If the young person who’s cyberbullying is a student, consider reporting it to the school principal or their parent(s)/caregiver(s). If you feel that a young person’s safety is at risk as a result of cyberbullying, call the police. You can also report harassment to your Internet service provider (ISP). Remember, it’s important to include the young person who’s experiencing cyberbullying whenever reporting the abuse.
  • Stay aware: keep computers/other devices in central locations where you can see them and monitor the young person’s reactions.

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

Disclosures about suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts should always be taken seriously.

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be tremendously stressful. Family, school and social pressures can be overwhelming, especially when combined with the physical changes young people may be experiencing. When compounded by mental health struggles — such as depression — young people may be at a higher risk for suicide.

How can I tell if a young person is suicidal?

The best way to find out if a young person is suicidal is to ask them directly. It’s common to worry that talking about suicide will give someone the idea, or increase the likelihood that they will have thoughts of suicide. However, neither of these notions is true. In fact, asking directly about suicide lets a young person know they can talk to you about the topic.

There are some common warning signs that may suggest a young person is at risk for suicide. Youth who are suicidal may exhibit some or all of the following behaviours. They may:

  • talk about suicide thoughts or actions
  • seem preoccupied with death, dying and/or suicide (e.g. in writing or drawings)
  • have previously attempted suicide
  • try to give away meaningful belongings
  • lose interest in friends, school, sports or hobbies
  • show signs of depression or hopelessness
  • have recently lost a friend or family member — in particular a parent — to suicide
  • show changes in their typical behaviour, including hygiene, eating, sleeping or mood

If a young person describes any type of plan to attempt suicide, the method they would use to die by suicide or a timeline of when they would act, it’s important to get help right away. Stay with the young person (or find a safe adult who can), let them know you’re concerned and make a plan together to call 911 or the emergency services in your area.

Talking to a young person about suicide

Here are some tips for talking to a young person about suicide:

Do…

  • Start gently: mention the changes you’ve noticed in their behaviour, such as, “I noticed you’re spending a lot of time alone lately — is something bothering you?”
  • Be direct: ask the young person if they’re considering suicide: “Are you thinking about hurting or killing yourself?” If the answer is yes, find out if they have a plan: “How are you planning to do it?” The more detailed the plan, the higher the risk.
  • Remind them you care: people who feel suicidal are often worried that they’re a burden, so it’s important to communicate to them that you care about them and want to help them through this difficult time.
  • Tell them help is available, and that you have hope for them: tell them that things can get better, and that you’ll support them in finding help and working toward learning skills to take care of their mental health. To start, you can make an appointment with your family doctor, visit a children’s mental health centre or use Resources Around Me to search for other support options near you. You can also pass along Kids Help Phone’s number — 1-800-668-6868 — so the young person can talk to a counsellor.

Don’t…

  • Judge: let the young person do the talking and try to avoid interrupting as they share their story.
  • Talk too much: don’t try to fill all the silences in the conversation. The pauses may result in the young person opening up more.
  • Minimize: avoid minimizingthe young person’s feelings by saying things like, “Life isn’t fair,” or “It’ll pass.”

If a young person has a plan to die by suicide 

Do not leave the young person alone. It’s important to stay with the young person as you work together to connect with support in your community (e.g. you can call 911 or the emergency services in your area). If you can’t stay with the young person, ask another safe adult (e.g. a relative, friend, elder, etc.) who’s willing and able to stay with them and help them stay safe.

Getting help for yourself

Knowing that a young person in your life is suicidal can be incredibly difficult. As a parent or caregiver, you may feel judgment or blame for what the young person is going through, or you may feel that it’s your fault. It’s not. Avoid the temptation to criticize or blame yourself. Support is crucial during this time. It’s important to create a network of trusted people you can talk to about your feelings, such as friends, family members, spiritual leaders, counsellors, a support group, or anyone else who can listen and assist. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

Digital technology and social media are an integral part of everyday communication for most people. It can help individuals stay connected with friends/family, be a break/escape from stress, give people a sense of belonging and open the door to learning new things. However, the Internet can also be a place where people encounter things such as cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation. To help you and the young people in your life stay safe online, we’ve compiled some helpful tips.

Educate yourself

It’s important to learn about ways to stay safe online and share these with the young people in your life, rather than restricting them from using their device(s). If you’re not a regular user of social media or online platforms, it’s a good idea to learn how to navigate these spaces so that you’ll have a better understanding of what young people do online.

Communicate with the young people in your life

  • Be curious about what’s going on in their lives, including their online activities.
  • Avoid trying to frighten a young person about the risks of being online. Scare tactics convey the message that adults don’t understand, while discouraging kids from reaching out when they need help. Instead, let the young person know that if they encounter something or someone who makes them feel uncomfortable online, they can come to you without fear of your reaction.
  • Make sure the young person knows the Internet is a public place and that information such as their name, age, location, phone number or school can be used to identify them.
  • Let the young person know their instincts are their best guide. You can teach them to block, ignore or report people they encounter online who do or say anything they find unsettling (like asking them questions about sex, requesting photos, etc.).

Specific tips for parents/caregivers of younger children

  • Be sure that a parent/caregiver or other safe adult always supervises your child’s online activities and makes sure they only use websites/apps you’ve approved.
  • Create a list of technology house rules with your kids, especially younger ones. Set limits for how much time your child spends online, which sites they can visit, which apps they’re allowed to use, etc.
  • Set up your child’s accounts and gaming consoles. Activate parental controls as well as restrictions for who can play or chat with your child. Know your child’s passwords.

Specific tips for parents/caregivers of teens

  • Encourage your teen to think about the possible impacts before posting information or pictures. Teach teens that anything they post online can be distributed widely in seconds, and that once they post something, it’s very difficult to control what it’s used for.
  • Balance respect for privacy with monitoring your teen’s online activities. For most families, trust and communication is more effective than surveillance. As a parent/caregiver, decide your own comfort level with having access to your teen’s accounts, and then be transparent with them about what you’ll see and how often you’ll check in.
  • Encourage your teen to think critically about who they meet online. Reinforce that not everyone is who they say they are online.
  • Assert that when teens meet someone they know online in person, they should take someone they trust along with them. If this isn’t possible, stress that they must — at the very least — notify other people of their meeting time and place, and make a safety plan in case they feel unsafe during the meeting.
  • Explain to your teen that it’s illegal to:
    • threaten someone online or offline
    • gamble online or offline as a minor
    • send, possess or distribute sexual photos/videos of someone (of any age) without their consent.
      • It’s a good idea to review sexting and child pornography laws with your teen. (For example, it’s important to know it may be illegal to possess or share a sexual photo/video of someone if they’re under the age of 18, even if they’ve given their consent.)

Help is out there

If the young person in your life is threatened online, and you’re worried about their safety, act immediately. If you think the young person is physically at risk, or the target of online sexual exploitation, call the police right away. You can also report abuse to the website where it’s happening. You can learn more about what to do if you or someone you know has been negatively impacted by a sexual picture/video being shared online at NeedHelpNow.ca. You can report cases of online sexual exploitation at Cybertip.ca.

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

While some people may be more naturally hopeful than others, hopefulness isn’t just a matter of temperament. Like health, hope is affected by our context — our interpersonal, social, economic and political circumstances. What this means is that we can all help each other become more hopeful through our everyday interactions.

Hope is a verb: Something we do together

Behind the idea of hope in practice is a belief in the power of community. In other words, “We can’t do it alone.” Only with the support of others can we accomplish our goals, meet our needs and increase our well-being. The way we make this happen is by reducing isolation. When we reach out to others, we help foster hope — both for ourselves, and for those who need a hand when they can’t do it on their own.

Practicing hope in this way is something that may be familiar to parents/caregivers of young children. Reassuring them when they’re frustrated, soothing them when they’re hurt and supporting them to try again are big parts of every parent/caregiver’s day-to-day life. But as children get older, fostering hope can be more of a challenge. Older kids and teens may become suspicious or even dismissive of hopeful messages, believing instead that what they struggle with now, they’ll struggle with forever. This is common, but all it means is that we need to practice more hope and resilience. It’ll help to guide young people forward and overcome their obstacles.

Tips for fostering hope and resilience in young people

Practicing hope with young people is an ongoing process. In the following, you’ll find some different ways we can help foster resilience in young people.

In conversation

While listening

  • Listen actively: it’s easy to get into the habit of half-listening or starting to prepare a response while a young person is still explaining something. But by doing this, we miss out on a lot of what they’re telling us. By being an active listener instead — repeating back or “reflecting” what a young person has said by using phrases like, “What I think you’re telling me is…” — you may be surprised by how much more productive and meaningful your conversations can be.
  • Respect and validate young people’s experiences: when a young person describes their struggles to you, try to understand the wish or need behind it — that may help you appreciate what’s at stake for them. Most often, they’re expressing universal needs: the need to belong, to feel respected, to feel well and to succeed. What can a young person’s feelings of sadness, anger, fear or uncertainty tell them (and us) about what’s happening in their lives? What do their feelings say about their needs for wellness?
  • Practice empathy and be curious: we can start empathizing by trying to understand a young person’s frame of reference. How do they define their perceptions, goals, wishes and dreams? What does their problem or situation mean to them?

While talking

  • Avoid minimizing: responding to youth in a way that minimizes what they’re going through can often make them feel as if they aren’t understood or their problems aren’t respected. It’s important to acknowledge and respect the young person as they share their story.
  • Tailor responses according to a young person’s developmental age: simple reassurances often work well with younger children, especially when combined with gestures of affection. For older kids and teens, on the other hand, it’s a good idea to match your response to the complexity of the problem. A helpful response may begin with an acknowledgement that things aren’t simple, and then move on to helping the young person make sense of their problem and brainstorming together possible solutions and/or possible coping strategies to deal with how they’re feeling.

In a struggle

  • Slow down: as parents and caregivers, we instinctively try to take care of the young people in our lives. When our kids are stuck, we may jump quickly into problem-solving mode as a way to reassure them. But not all problems have a quick fix, and they’re not all within our child’s (or our own) control. Taking the time to listen to what the problem means to the young person is a helpful and validating act, promoting connection and positive coping. Building mental wellness, boosting confidence and strengthening coping skills can be a long process. Stick with it — be patient with yourself and your child.
  • Focus on strengths and skills: when a young person is struggling, pointing out the things they’re doing well can help them become hopeful that these strategies will help them deal successfully with future challenges. Complimenting kids and teens when they’ve been thoughtful, kind or insightful during situations they found challenging can also be helpful, and the more detailed the compliment, the better it is. For example: “I was really impressed with the way you handled yourself in that disagreement with your sibling. From the way you were asking questions, I could tell you were trying to understand things from their perspective and be respectful. That shows kindness and maturity.”
  • Facilitate connections: everyone benefits from human connection. Encouraging young people to talk to others (e.g. relatives, friends, teachers, guidance counsellors, online networks, etc.) about their struggles can help them build a support network that offers them a range of perspectives and types of assistance. Connecting with others who have made it through similar struggles can go a long way to facilitating the hope that, “I can get through this.”

In general

  • Encourage independence: building resilience can strengthen a young person’s ability to create meaning and fulfilment in their lives. When young people are able to take an active role in making decisions that affect them, they learn that they have some control over their environment. In this way, having choices — and the opportunity to try, fail and try again — teaches kids and teens how to be more hopeful.
  • Be a role model: young people learn how to “be” in the world from those around them. When we model behaviours and attitudes that support hope and well-being, the young people in our lives have the opportunity to learn from our example. Some of the things we can do to model hope and well-being include:
    • expressing a range of emotions and being OK with talking about them (even the hard ones)
    • supporting others who are struggling and letting others support us when we need help
    • being respectful and caring in our interactions with others
    • planning for the future, including setting short- and long-term goals
    • recognizing that life includes setbacks and disappointments by:
      • reflecting that it’s OK to make mistakes
      • apologizing when we’ve made a mistake
      • taking success and failure in stride
      • adapting goals to make them more achievable
    • demonstrating that all people have value by:
      • being non-judgmental and challenging prejudice
      • being curious about and interested in other people
      • valuing yourself
      • not making disrespectful/hurtful comments about others, even when they’re not around

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

Youth can be a tumultuous time full of change, insecurity and uncertainty. It can easily be overwhelming, which is why we need to be aware of the emotional health and well-being of the young people in our lives.

Things you can do starting now

  • Reflect that you value and accept the young person for who they are. Don’t assume that they already know it or don’t need to hear it again.
  • Communicate with the young person. Encourage them to talk about what’s happening in their life — both the good and the bad — while respecting that they may not want to disclose everything. Young people can keep secrets from their parents/caregivers for many reasons, but if a foundation of trust and understanding is in place, they’ll be more likely to reach out when they need help.
  • Make an effort to really listen and hear what the young person is telling you. Reflect that you “get it” when you do, and ask for clarification when you don’t. Show them that you want to understand them.
  • Let the young person know that you’re a person they can talk to. Explicitly tell them that you’re open to talking about the tough stuff. Let them know that you don’t want them to have to deal with things on their own and that you’re willing to help them find solutions.
  • Model appropriate and healthy emotional responses and relationships with others. For example, everyone gets frustrated in conversations from time to time. It’s important to recognize that when things get heated, it’s time to take a break from the discussion to cool off.
  • Be open to using different methods for communication. Some young people may find it really difficult to talk in person, and are more comfortable with an email, text or written note. Ask the young person what works best for them and try to work with it.
  • Avoid involving the young person in adult problems. For example: relationship issues, financial struggles, employment challenges, etc.
  • Work on your own mental health literacy. Learn more about emotional health, mental disorders and wellness from reliable online resources or by talking to a doctor, social worker or other mental health professional who has knowledge they can share with you.
  • Reflect on your own views of mental health. Pay attention to the way you react to stories of people who experience mental health challenges. Be mindful of how you talk about and react to stories in the media surrounding mental disorders.

You can find mental health and wellness services for the young people in your life by visiting Resources Around Me. It’s the largest database of youth-serving programs and services in Canada, and is available in English and French.

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.

How do I talk to a young person about sexting? How can I get my child to open up at home? What do I say if my teen comes out to me? You have questions. Kids Help Phone has answers. In this eight-part video series, Counsellor Duane shares his top tips for communicating with the young people in your life. From healthy relationships to mental health struggles to exploring independence, watch as Duane teaches you how to effectively listen to, acknowledge and connect with youth as they navigate some of life’s biggest challenges. Click to play and learn more below.

Help is out there

If you know a young person who is struggling with a problem, big or small, you can encourage them to contact Kids Help Phone for support. We’re available 24/7/365.