Connecting with supportive adults makes a difference
Reprinted from the Young People: Transitions issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 11 (2), pp. 7-9
Having a supportive adult can make a huge difference to youth as they go through periods of transition. This is true for all youth, as well as those who face extra challenges.
The McCreary Centre Society conducts the BC Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS) every five years in mainstream public schools across the province. It’s a pencil-and-paper questionnaire that asks youth in grades seven through 12 about their physical and emotional health, and about factors that can influence health. The fifth BC AHS took place in 2013, with 56 of BC’s 59 school districts participating. (See From Hastings Street to Haida Gwaii: Provincial Results of the 2013 BC Adolescent Health Survey at www.mcs.bc.ca/ahs).
The youth survey said...
Among the 29,832 students ages 12 to 19 who completed the 2013 BC Adolescent Health Survey, just over three-quarters of males and 70% of females had an adult inside their family who they could turn to if they were having a problem. A little under a third (32%) of the students could identify an adult outside their family they could turn to for support. However, almost one in five youth (19%) had no such adults in their lives.
While males were more likely than females to have a supportive adult inside their family (76% vs. 70% females), females were more likely to have a supportive adult outside their family (34% vs. 30% males). The closer youth got to the transition out of high school, the less likely they were to be able to identify a supportive adult inside their family, but the more likely they were to have one outside.
Youth who had a supportive adult in their life reported better health outcomes. For example, they were more likely to: describe their mental health as “good” or “excellent” (89% vs. 61% with no supportive adult); feel happy, skilled and valued; and plan to graduate and continue their education beyond high school.
Having a supportive adult to turn to was less common among youth who needed it most, such as youth who had been physically or sexually abused, those with a mental health condition and those who were in government care. However, if these youth did have a supportive adult in their lives, they were less likely to engage in risky behaviours such as binge drinking. And, they were more likely to report their current mental health as “good” or “excellent,” and to have positive plans for the future.
Beyond having someone to turn to in a crisis, 61% of BC youth survey respondents reported that they had an adult in their neighbourhood or community who really cared about them, and 63% had a teacher who cared about them. Having an adult who cared was more common in rural than urban areas.
Youth who felt that an adult in their neighbourhood, community or school cared about them were less likely to miss out on mental health services when they needed them. They were also more likely to feel safe in their neighborhood during the day (69% vs. 55%) and at night (32% vs. 23%).
When youth needed help, they most commonly approached friends (73%) and family (69%), then teachers (41%), school counsellors (25%), doctors (25%), sports coaches (23%) and friends’ parents (18%). Males were more likely to approach teachers and sports coaches, whereas females were more likely to approach family, friends and school counsellors. When youth found the adults they approached to be helpful, they reported better outcomes than if they didn’t approach someone for support or if they did ask for help but didn’t find the experience a positive one.
Further insight from youth on the survey data
The data above and other data showing the positive role of a supportive and caring adult has been shared with over 260 youth across BC through a series of workshops and focus groups. Most youth who reviewed the results agreed with the findings, although some participants felt that there was a difference between youth thinking they had someone to talk to and that person actually being available and approachable when they really needed them.
“Before I had a problem I would have said I had an adult to talk to, but when it actually came to it, I didn’t.”
Responding to the data, youth also said that the percentages of youth ages 19 or older who could identify a supportive and caring adult in their lives would be much lower than the percentages seen among younger youth who completed the BC Adolescent Health Survey. This was because transitioning out of high school resulted in young people losing adult supports in their lives, including youth workers, social workers, teachers, counsellors and other school staff.
“I don’t want to stop getting help just because I am now 18.”
“Teachers are a huge support in high school, but [in college] there’s more stress and fewer supports.”
Youth discussed what they looked for in a supportive adult during times of transitions or when they were in crisis. In these times they wanted adults who:
are friendly and talk to youth like equals
are aware of what’s going on for youth, and don’t ignore it
show they are an ally to youth (e.g., by acting on bullying when they see it)
try to relate to youth’s experiences
are sympathetic to youth’s issues, non-judgmental and take their problems seriously
are flexible, available and can adapt as youth change and grow
“It’s an accessible adult, when you need it.”
are knowledgeable about local services and resources youth might need
keep youth’s information confidential, and don’t get shocked by what youth tell them keep youth’s information confidential, and don’t get shocked by what youth tell them
“Someone who is chill and you can actually tell stuff to.”
follow through on what they say they’ll do
Youth also said that adults should be aware that often youth don’t ask for help until problems reach crisis mode.
“Adults mistake our problems as minor. If a student comes with a problem, then it’s a problem.”
Young people said that when they approach adults for support, they don’t want to be told what to do, but want someone who will explain their options to them and what the results of different choices might be, and then leave the youth to decide what they want to do.
“It can be really frustrating when you just want someone to confide in, and they keep giving you all this advice.”
However, when it came to navigating systems—like the mental health system, applying to post-secondary education and learning life skills, such as grocery shopping and doing laundry—youth preferred to be given more hands-on, concrete and ongoing support.
“Someone who doesn’t just tell you what to do, but holds your hand all the way through and shows you how and what to do.”
Whether you are looking at the survey results or talking to young people about what they need, it’s clear that for youth to enjoy a successful transition from one stage or setting to another, they need supportive and caring adults in their lives.
This may not be a new idea—but can we always say that we do the things we need to do to show that we are available, we care, we are listening and we want to help?
About the author
Annie is Executive Director of the McCreary Centre Society, a non-profit organization committed to improving the health of BC youth through community based-research, evaluation and youth-participation projects. She is the lead author on many McCreary reports and has presented locally and internationally on the role of adults supporting youth through transitions