Helping Young People to Modify a Negative Identity and Recognise Strengths
(At times, I may use ‘YP’ for ‘young person/people.)
We are not born with low self-esteem. I still feel a twinge of sadness (sometimes anger) when I meet children and young adults who have developed an identity so negative and confidence so low that it is seriously impacting their lives. But we can change this. The purpose of this post (and future posts) is to examine how to help a young person to develop higher self-esteem and recognise their positive traits, thus building a more positive identity.
My sadness or anger is triggered by the cause, which can include: trauma, sexual or emotional abuse, bullying, major life transitions. But positive energy then goes into moving forward and enabling the YP to change this through Strengths-Focused Coaching sessions, if this type of intervention is appropriate. My role is also training or supporting other support staff to enable them to help young people.
Nasir and Mel
In a Further Education college, a young Student Adviser, Mel, is supporting 17 year-old ‘Nasir’. Nasir is having weekly 1-1 sessions with Mel. The aim of their meetings is to help him to feel more confident and to develop a more positive identity. Mel gave me an example of how she had been trying to do this – she had asked Nasir to think about someone he likes or admires. Mel had then asked Nasir: “what are the qualities of that person that you would like to have?”
Mel explained to me that Nasir (and herself) had ‘got a bit stuck’. Nasir found the above exercise difficult to engage with. Mel was trying hard to help him to feel more positive and acknowledge his strengths, but the task was feeling monumental!
Let’s pause here to walk in Nasir’s world. He is a young carer, who lives with his unwell mother and siblings. He has low self-confidence and a negative identity, which is impacting his academic achievement and mental health. The task that Mel set him is an interesting and worthwhile one, but why do you think he ‘got stuck’ on it?
When Mel was talking to me about Nasir, I was curious and asked her, are Nasir’s siblings younger than him? What strengths does his caring role reveal? Does he have a part time job? What does this reveal about him? Is he on time for his meetings with Mel? What other positives does Mel notice about Nasir? As Mel listened to me and answered my questions, I could see the penny drop and she smiled: “ahhh…I get it…”
In Blog Post 2: From Defensive to Open., when coaching/supporting a YP, I advocate being in the ‘Here and Now’ with them. What are they feeling, being and doing NOW? Illuminating the seemingly ordinary can sow the seeds for germinating a more positive identity. Shine a light on to the everyday ‘just me’ things they do, as well as the extraordinary things such as being a talented dancer or mastering the guitar via ‘you tube’ clips. (Years ago I coached a ‘tough-looking’ 18 year-old, with aggressive behaviour, who revealed that he had taught himself to play Mozart on a keyboard from a charity shop!)
The Definition of ‘Strength’
One of the things that young people have taught me is that even their perception and understanding of what a ‘strength’ or ‘quality’ is, is sometimes skewed. Some feel that they have to come up with ‘something amazing’, so no wonder they are put off.
In terms of building positive identity: think of it like baking. You may be aiming for an awesome three-tiered, show-stopper that would win the final of the ‘Great British Bake Off’. So you start out by making shortbread and build yourself up to the showstopper.
Many of our ‘strengths’ lie in the everyday things that we do. Once a young person can accept that, yes, they are usually punctual and yes, they are kind to their friends – and they realise that THESE are their strengths, then they are learning and the door opens for greater self discovery. The foundation thus begins for a more positive identity. The first batch of shortbread looks edible!
When first exploring strengths, through activities such as SFC ‘Self Survey’ and ‘My World’, there is often a smile when – in the end – they concede that…
…yeah..okay…it’s true…I just didn’t realise that that was a strength!’
Consider what it is like for a 17 year-old who has experienced trauma, dislikes himself and is being bombarded by a critical inner voice.
With a YP, at this stage, when dipping a (possibly reluctant) toe into the pool of self-discovery, it doesn’t really matter whether we label them: ‘strengths’, ‘qualities’, ‘skills’, ‘what you are good at’, the ‘things your friends like about you’. (Let them choose a term that they are comfortable with). What matters is that you are giving them permission and space to allow their brains to focus on their positives and begin to move away from identity tags such as:
I’m a waste of space
I’m a stress-head
Notice and Unpack
So it is helpful initially, to notice strengths that the YP can’t really argue with, as observed by you or their friend or revealed through a ‘getting to know you’ activity such as the SFC ‘My World’. Qualities such as a winning smile, neat handwriting, a cool haircut, caring for a pet, being able to fix a bike, an I.T whizz, a champion ‘gamer’. Some of these are worth unpacking further…
If they are good at football, don’t just accept it as ‘good at football’. Unpack. Do they turn up for practice every week, rain or shine? What does this reveal about them? Being part of a team: what strengths does that entail? Do they have good coordination? A fearless goalie? Supportive of younger players?
If they are a ‘good friend’, why are they a good friend? Are they a good listener? Give good advice? Funny?
Allow silence for them to ponder. Help them out and wonder aloud if they get stuck. E.g. “I wonder if you are loyal because you said that you stuck by your friend when she was feeling low and she was behaving a bit odd?”
When offering your viewpoint about their strengths, be genuine and specific, based on your ‘truth’ of what you see. E.g. “Nasir, you apologised for being a bit late last week. That was polite. That’s a good quality to have.” You don’t have to make a song and dance about it. Be succinct but warm and remember that YP can spot insincerity a mile off!
Start to log their strengths. Let them choose the format: a chart; mind-map; list; on ‘Word’ or on paper; writing each strength on a piece of card and placing them into a jar. This can be added to week by week as ‘new’ strengths emerge.
Above all, relax and enjoy the process with them.
Important: when exploring positive qualities, if they are very oppositional, uncomfortable, become anxious or even angry, don’t push it. Leave it for now. Move on. (We will explore this further next time). Having just one or two positives written down is a start. The ‘drip, drip’ effect is fine. Shortbread before a show-stopper, remember?
‘Full of It’ versus ‘The Truth’
A number of young people worry that exploring their strengths is ‘big-headed’. We are often trained to be modest and not blow our own trumpets. People who do so are ‘full of it’. Right? Mel approached this issue perfectly with Nasir when he raised this worry.
We talked about the difference between simply acknowledging his positive traits and going around telling everyone about them!
An important element of Strength-Focused Coaching is to explore the truth. The initial SFC activities (such as the ‘Self-Survey’, ‘My World’and ‘What Matters’?) are effective at drawing this out. But we don’t dodge the truth if it also includes unacceptable or ‘negative’ behaviours. However, as mentioned in previous posts, it is vital to discover and focus on the positives first before we start to climb and set targets, aimed at addressing the negatives.
When the initial activities that boost confidence and build positive identity are completed, staff and YP sometimes report that their ‘problem behaviours’ decrease, without us even directly targeting them. Why might that be?
In her next session with Nasir, Mel used the Strengths-Focused Coaching (SFC) approach.
“Through the activities, we talked about the different aspects of Nasir’s life and I wrote down the positive character traits that came out of it. We also picked the top 10 things that were important to him and chatted about those. Nasir said it felt weird but we talked about how these were things that he already was, they just needed recognising and celebrating.”
Mel was achieving multiple things here:
- using visual, practical, ‘non-invasive’ activities
- allowing Nasir to be in control and to own the process (see: Post 4. Change and the Power of Ownership.)
- showing curiosity and empathy
- allowing Nasir to learn and thus begin the process of modifying his identity
- what else do you notice about Mel’s approach now?
Why do you think that Nasir described the experience as ‘weird’?
Mel hit the nail on the head when she said that they were ‘recognising and celebrating’ and this is how we can transform our time with a young person.
As Mel said:
Nasir went away much happier. It worked a treat and a positive seed has been sown, thank you!
This reminds me that, as supporters of young people, we are also learning all the time and often need that boost that spurs us on in our roles.
Next time: Tia’s story in Post 7: Anger, Fear and Identity: When Success Seems Impossible
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