Relationships and Adolescent Mental Health: One Good Adult

Antoinette Stanbridge investigates mental health in Ireland today, with a particular insight into today's youth.

Relationships and Adolescent Mental Health: One Good Adult


One of the most interesting pieces of Irish research this year was the My World Survey, a national study of youth mental health in Ireland. Launched in May 2012 by Headstrong in collaboration with the UCD School of Psychology, it revealed some thought provoking findings about the real mental health needs of our young people. The data taken from over 14,000 people aged between 12 and 25, is the first survey of this scale in Ireland and was designed as a structured tool to listen to young people and what they had to say about their mental health.
Sometimes there are gaps in our understanding of what it is like to grow up in Ireland today, but one thing is for certain, people grow up fairly quickly and occasionally parents and educators feel at a loss when it comes to developing helpful and insightful perspective on the recurring issues. While in general it was found that the majority of young people function quite well, it confirmed that mental health difficulties tend to emerge in early adolescence and peak in the late teens. 
The one really surprising find is how crucial to mental health and well being the relationship with ‘One Good Adult’ is. This relationship with ‘One Good Adult’ is thought to be a strong protective factor in a young person’s well-being and mental health. A special adult is somebody that a young person knows is available to them in a time of need. This person can be a family member, a friend or a professional. 70% of the young people surveyed said that they had one special adult in their lives with whom they felt they could trust and share their cares and worries. Perceived support from a special adult were categorised into five groups from very low support (8%) to very high support (42%). The findings suggest that adolescents who perceived that they had little support from a special adult when in need, were most likely to report levels of depression that were at least moderate and sometimes severe. The same findings emerged in relation to stress and anxiety. Conclusively, a strong relationship with ‘One Good Adult’ is a strong protective factor in mental health.
So why should this be a surprise to us? Very often as professionals and trainees we can get caught up with the latest technology and big science in Counselling and Psychotherapy. We lose ourselves in what one what one of my students appropriately misnomered  the ‘molasses’ of stats, facts and figures and do web citations go under H in the bibliography because they all start with http :  . . .
According to this piece of research, it really is all about the relationship. To the adults who are currently providing the high support that our young people need, I salute you. However for the rest of us,  it’s a piece of research that can leave us wondering, could we be doing more to support our young people and are our relationship skills up to the task of providing this vital support?
We live in a culture where our media likes to sensationalise what is considered to be the poor behaviour of our young people, exhibiting graphic scenes out of context, provoking family and community rifts. Our conservative culture can be quick to condemn or stigmatise a behaviour, leading a young person down a thorny path of isolation and need. Strong self-esteem is an essential factor in good mental health and our young people need to be shown how to actively cope with the inevitable crises that naturally occur as part of their development. Avoidant coping strategies include denying that a distressing event ever occurred, or its personal impact. Sometimes this is accompanied by drug and alcohol misuse or other forms of risky behaviour.
The natural response to this from an adult perspective, is to try out of sheer desperation, to eliminate the behaviour. Curfews are implemented, privileges taken away, mobile phones systematically de-SIM-ed and SCART leads ritually snipped. The evidence suggests that rather than imposing alienating sanctions, we should be building relationships.
A name familiar to most of you reading this is that of William Glasser, who developed Reality Therapy and Choice Theory. What is noteworthy about Glasser is that his system and vision is currently being implemented in one of the Youthreach Projects in Trim, Co. Meath.  Glasser (1999) outlines what terms the 7 Deadly Habits in a relationship which include criticizing; blaming; complaining; nagging; threatening; punishing; and bribing or rewarding to control, which are worth considering when evaluating our relationship. He also suggested 7 Caring Habits: supporting; encouraging; listening; accepting; trusting; respecting; and negotiating differences.
It’s a very practical approach and an inventory that is easy enough to take stock of. One esteemed colleague and expert Glasserian suggests that as one deadly habit is abandoned, a caring habit is substituted and incorporated into a relationship repertoire for 21 days or until it has been integrated. 
We are all familiar with the mantra "you can’t change another person" and although some of us are reluctant to accept this, it is unfortunately true. How easy life would be if we could just download new and more appropriate software into the hearts and minds of our nearest and dearest! Instead however, relationships take work. Under most circumstances relationships are in and of themselves quite pleasurable and gratifying, so we need little incentive to pay attention to them. At other times effort is required. 
If  as the above research suggests, relationships with one special adult is so crucial to the mental health and wellbeing of our young people, and most likely by default other adults, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our connections with others and our inter-relatedness. After all, we cannot change the person, but we can change the relationship.

Antoinette Stanbridge
PCI College Lecturer, Middlesex University - Link Tutor

References, further reading:

Dooley, B.and Fitzgerald, A., (2012) My World Survey:National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland (PDF)  available at
(accessed 28 November 2012)
Glasser, W. (1999) Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. London: Harper Collins

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