This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young teenager discovers better connection and mental health through learning to listen.
15-year-old Stina was a chatty, smiley teenager with many friends. Her friendships could sometimes be volatile, but after arguments were quickly restored.
A few months ago, Stina seemed to deflate. She was no longer open with her family or her friends, and seemed lonely and withdrawn. She refused to tell her mum what was going on, and was angry when her parents tried to talk about it.
Stina seemed to be sinking deeper into loneliness and anger – her parents couldn’t get through to her. So they contacted our support team to see whether we could help.
She reluctantly agreed to come to counselling via Zoom, and appeared at the first session wary and disgruntled.
We spent some time during our first session establishing a relationship. A bond of trust is vital in counselling, giving permission to open up and be honest no matter how unclear or ugly our emotions may seem to us.
When Stina began to relax into our time together, I asked her to draw a picture of herself with her friends. We looked together at the picture she had drawn, naming the different people and examining what she had made. Stina commented that, in the picture, she was a bit separate from the others.
After a pause, she also said that Stina in the picture seemed angry. This lead to her sharing that she had recently started a relationship with someone else, and had made that relationship her priority. Stina reflected on a feeling of being excluded from conversations with her friends, because she’s not spending time with them as before. She also acknowledged that when this happens, she feels angry – but with a deeper feeling of sadness underneath.
Our following sessions were spent exploring the root of the anger and sadness, and the disconnection with others.
We talked about moments when Stina did feel happy, and we noticed that those moments often happened when she felt connected to others. This link between happiness and connecting with others took her by surprise. As we talked about why this might be, Stina recognised the value of being heard by others and listening well. Both hearing and being heard built a sense of happiness in her – a wellbeing and positivity. It made her feel better about herself and about other people.
Our conversation shifted at this point to focus on home. Stina’s home was a very busy one – both her parents work, and she has younger siblings too. She feels unhappy at home, and linked that to not feeling listened to. But she also noticed that there were times when her parents were deliberately listening to her. The best moments of connection for Stina were when the TV was off and they were not looking at their phones.
Learning to Listen
As we discussed listening, and what good listening looked like, Stina began to notice that she wasn’t great at listening! She noticed how distractible she was, and how quickly she interrupted people.
Stina also reflected on how bad her friends were at listening too, in ways that she hadn’t noticed. There was often the desire to be heard, but not the desire to listen – and this was actually really unsatisfying for everyone. Stina realised that she was now recognising that her anger and loneliness were often triggered by poor listening skills in her friendship group and family.
So Stina and I worked together on a list of what good listening looks like. We decided good listening includes:
- Eye contact. Meeting someone’s eye helps them know they are the focus of your attention.
- Body language. Turning your body towards someone, not crossing your arms as if defensive or cross… Our bodies communicate how open we are to hear someone.
- Avoiding distractions – especially our mobile phones, but other things too. Putting down something we’re fiddling with; turning off music or the television; putting down our book or magazine. Laying aside the things around us tells someone else that we’re really listening.
- Paying attention verbally and non-verbally. This means the little noises or gestures we make that tell someone we’ve heard what they’re saying. Good listening isn’t about giving solutions or answers to what people are saying, it’s about hearing and reflecting back what we’ve heard.
Stina decided to put these things into practice when she was spending time with her friends. We agreed to talk about the impact it had when she came back to her next session.
Empowered to Listen
When Stina came to her last session with me, she came in smiling. She told me how great her listening experiment had been! Not only had she felt good about the way she listened to her friends, she’d also felt that they’d responded by listening better to her.
Her anger and sadness were gone and her friendships felt so much better.
Stina also told me about a significant moment with her mum. She’d wanted to talk to her mum about something, but her mum was browsing on her mobile. Stina asked her mum to put her phone down so that she could listen to her. Her mum responded really well, and put her phone down to pay attention to Stina. She felt really affirmed and empowered by her ability to ask for good listening.
As we ended our time together, Stina drew a picture to remind herself what good listening looked like. She drew herself, amongst her friends, listening well and being listened to – and included all the great feelings of connection, trust and confidence that came with good listening.
This story was told by Annie, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in young people.
Listening well is a vital skill in any relationship, and something we learn and practice. But, when we actively build good relationship skills like listening, we set ourselves up for much better, more stable future relationships. If your relationships are struggling, like Stina’s were, we can help you work out how to build healthy habits for better relationships. Find out more about young person’s counselling or contact us today to book.