A tough time of year for many kids

Angela Seabourne, a counsellor with the confidential and anonymous national support service Kids Help Phone, answered questions from CBC News about the common concerns young people face at this time of year and the kinds of guidance she provides.
The new academic year brings anxieties about new schools, unfamiliar faces and the possible continuation of bullying. (iStock)

With the new school year around the corner, it's not uncommon for many students to experience apprehensions ranging from academic anxiety to social stress.

Angela Seabourne, a counsellor with the confidential and anonymous national support service Kids Help Phone, answered questions from CBC News about the common concerns young people face at this time of year and the kinds of guidance she provides.

Do you get different kinds of calls to your help line at this time of year?

We get them now because there's a lot of angst, and "Oh my god, it's coming now, what's going to happen when I go back to school?"

In terms of the volume, I can say the biggest pressure is making new friends, and then the academic demands of going to a new school, if they're going to a new school like a high school from elementary school. Also some of the calls I've gotten have been about feeling ashamed if they are being held back in their grade and they aren't going to be with their friends.

One girl was like, "Oh my god, am I going to have to date now that I'm going into Grade 7?" So that's a concern, too.

And what do you tell young people who have these concerns, including kids who are afraid even to talk in class?

I think what they are saying — I'm anxious about high school, I'm anxious about Grade 7, am I going to be accepted by the way I dress, by the way I look — I think that overall anxiety is from any kids. It's probably very common, and when you talk with a child you can try to share that: "You know what? You are just one of many people who are gong to be experiencing the same thing, so when you have to speak in class and introduce yourself, it's probably good to think that everyone else is just as nervous as you are." And have them be more mindful about what they're saying or doing, have them take a breath, relax, maybe take a timeout or go to the washroom.

Are many of the young people calling for help concerned about bullying?

There's so many calls about bullying in all different ways, including cyber-bullying, now that kids use all these different social media networks like Facebook and MSN. There's many ways of getting negative feedback from peers, so that's often the case. You'll get a lot of phone calls from  younger girls and boys. For girls, it's younger, I'd say age 11 to tweens. There is a lot of social ostracizing, and you're in or you're out, and there's a lot of pressure with cliques and young girls, and a lot of girls call because one girl is befriending her best friend and she's kicked out of the clique. That age is a very temperamental time, adolescence, and it often manifests in these ways.


Stressed students: What advice would you give them?

For boys, I would say it peaks right through up to the beginning of high school, and it's manifested differently in that its more physical, there's more aggression with it. And there's more shame with the boys, or it feels like it. I  would imagine it's because our society says boys are tough and girls can talk about their feelings. There's a lot of name-calling and physical stuff.

What do you tell people worried about bullying?

Some are worried about bullying following them from their previous school, when they're moving on to junior or high school, so we help them with strategies to stop that from happening again. I try to focus on their physical presentation in school, on body language, on speaking assertively, and maybe some creative visualization before school starts, to image things in a positive manner, and when negative thoughts come in, to go back to that positive place.

Bullying by girls peaks at a younger age than boys and is less physical, more social, according to a kids counsellor. ((iStock))

So we talk about body language and ways of becoming possibly more popular in school, for example to join extra-curricular activities you're interested in, and try out for as many teams as possible that you're interested in, because then you'll have more chance to make friends and will have more allies speaking up. It's very good to do it at the beginning of the school year because things are changing, everything's in flux, nobody really has bonded in cliques and everybody's in the same boat, so that's the time to do it. And a lot of young people will do that.

And what about kids returning to the same school at the start of a new school year?

I stress body language, being strong with your voice, not giving that illusion of being downtrodden or insecure. So to act, fake the confidence if you have to, because eventually it comes to you. And to take it from the beginning, depending on the issue of the bullying and the extent of the bullying, there are different strategies one can take, and we often encourage the young person to call us back, but also to have a plan to deal with it own their own if they have to. For instance not allowing that person to put themself in a situation where they're walking home alone, and we also encourage kids to keep a diary of what happens, when it happened and the date, so when they do present the issue to their principal, they have a record of it.

Some of the messages posted on the Kids Help Phone website are from teens who are at odds with their parents over career choices. The young adult who wants to go to college to study design, for example, while their parents are adamant that they go to university. How do you counsel someone in that situation?   

Obviously we don't tell kids what to do. We try to empower them or give them as much info as we can so that they feel they can make their own decisions. We encourage a young person to look at the pros and cons of both situations, of what they want and what their parents want. We encourage the young person to talk to a guidance counsellor at school and to have a conversation with them and maybe bring their parents in, so that they have another outside influence, so it's not jus the child hearing the parents, it's also the parents hearing the child and the guidance counsellor.

We don't really come out and give advice. If they need direction, we'll help them with that. Often people, when they're going through a crisis or a difficult time, it's hard to see that you have choices. So we seek to make them feel empowered that they're making this choice themselves.

What about young people experiencing pressure from their parents to get better grades — even when they often are already doing well in school?

'And sometimes we find out that the parents would want all A-pluses, and then "Why aren't you on the school debating team?" '—Angela Seabourne, Kids Help Phone counsellor

That's tough, and we hear it on the phone, we read it in the web postings. It's a matter of talking to the young person and finding out how they feel about their marks, and what's a good mark to them, and how would their parents respond if they got all A's. And sometimes we find out that the parents would want all A-pluses, and then "Why aren't you on the school debating team?" or something like that. So I try to have that child have a sense of normalcy around what is good, and encourage that young person to approach other adults in their life and share with them their grades, and be very mindful of their responses, so they can try to absorb those responses, to feel good about that. It's unfortunate that some parents are unsatisfied.

Do you get a lot of calls about sexuality and sexual orientation?

Oh yes. It's pretty evident that there's a lot of gender and sexual bias, even just in the prank calls we get — "Oh, everybody thinks I'm gay, what should I do?" But then we actually have young people who are transgendered or gay and they struggle. One element is coming out: What should I tell my family? And for others, they feel isolated, like they're the only one.

And what do you say?

As with all callers, we offer emotional support. That's a huge element, tone of voice and whatnot. With young people struggling with sexual issues, I normalize it as much as possible for them, their sexuality. We can give them phone numbers too of LGBT phone lines they can call and if they would like to talk to someone else about the matter who is also gay or bi or whatever it may be, but it's a very careful conversation because you don't want to push that child into coming out and becoming more ostracized in family and at school. So it's such a fine line in how a child chooses to deal with their own sexuality and who they choose to tell and what they choose to tell. That's a very sensitive issue.

Are drugs a concern among callers?

The themes tend to be marijuana and alcohol. Marijuana is a big one with a lot of high school students, and even Grade 7 or 8. There's also ecstasy. I don't have as many as I used to of the ecstasy calls. There's not as much as three years ago. In all of those, there's pressure from their friends who are doing it and they don't want to do it, or situations like, "I have a friend who's doing it and he's no longer the same. How can I help him? How can I change him?"

On all these issues, what advice do you have for parents who want to help their kids?

They can really listen and don't try to say, "Oh, things will be fine." It's probably better for parents to say, "Yeah, I understand your concerns. That must be scary for you, but I want you to know I'll be here to help you."

Take that time to really listen and be there present with them. And maybe even ask the child, "Is there anything that you would need from me? How I can help you through this time?"

Kids Help Phone takes calls from young people ages five to 20 at 1-800-668-6868 and provides online counselling and support at