Johnny Szumlanski and Linea Pretzmann are both chat counsellors at respectively Bispebjerg youth counselling and Cyberhus.dk. In their counselling, they meet young people who experience everything from heartaches and genital warts to serious violence and sexual assault. But regardless of the seriousness of the young person’s problems, the two chat counsellors see no problems in creating presence when giving counsel via digital media.

“You can easily be empathetic and present even though you cannot look each other in the eye. Naturally, you create presence in a chat room in other ways than you would in a physical setting. When our young people show up at Bispebjerg youth counselling, the presence is immediate when they enter the door; I welcome them and ask if they would like something to drink. Obviously, I do not have that option in a chat room. So I create presence by the way I write to our young people,” says Johnny Szumlanski, who together with his colleagues, has advised children and young people at Bispebjerg youth counselling via chat since December 2014.

Many counsellors are nervous they won’t be able to read young people’s signals when they cannot see their facial expressions. Linea Pretzmann has been a youth counsellor with Cyberhus for 3 years, and she agrees with Johnny Szumlanski. She believes you should not be afraid that you cannot create a relationship with young people or read their signals via anonymous chat:

“It actually does not require great, complicated therapeutic techniques. It’s about accommodating our youngsters and their problems, and meeting them in their difficulties. We obviously cannot see the young person to whom we give counsel via chat. So we always ask how they are doing, and we ask questions such as: ‘Is it okay that I ask you about this? If it becomes too much for you, or if I’m asking questions you don’t want to answer, then feel free to say no – it’s perfectly okay,” explains Linea Pretzmann concerning some considerations underlying Cyberhus’ chat counselling.

Openness, inclusiveness and recognition

Linea Pretzmann and Johnny Szumlanski both explain that openness, inclusiveness, and recognition are keywords that identify how they chat with young people, and they both believe that these aspects are crucial for creating meaningful relationships with young people. Johnny Szumlanski says that it is largely through questions, directed at the young people seeking counselling, that he makes the conversation present. That is why he is always very attentive to how he formulates his questions:

“I am very focussed that I ask questions that are non-judgemental, open, appreciative and which provides the youngster some needed space. Our youngsters must first and foremost be allowed to share difficult issues. Furthermore, I ask about what our young people have at heart, and I’m curious about what they are telling me. This is how I let them know that I care – even though they can’t see me. And when you care about someone, you create presence,” explains Johnny Szumlanski.

On several occasions, Linea Pretzmann has experienced that young people, carrying very heavy issues, have addressed Cyberhus’ chat room, and in some situations it may be difficult, as a counsellor, not to be affected when a young person shares their story that they been sexually molested that same day. But Linea stresses that it is important not to get affected, and not be judgemental of what the youngster shares:

“You create presence by listening to the youngster’s problem and not assuming you know how they feel about the person who assaulted them, for instance a parent. It is of great importance for our young people that they know you understand that their parents are not unpleasant people in general. You try to create a balanced view by saying: ‘What your father is doing sounds really uncomfortable for you, and it is very wrong of him. But I recognise that he also has some good sides that you like.’ You have to respect the fact that they may have a fairly close relationship with their perpetrator – It is my experience that this indeed helps our dialogue with our youngsters,” says Linea Pretzmann.

You build trust and make young people feel safe

A typical feature about a group of young people who come to our chat counselling is often that they are in some kind of an emergency. So, as a chat counsellor you have to be aware that youngsters often address our chat when they are at their most low. Therefore, their emotions may be up in arms and they may find it difficult to reflect on and accommodate the counsellor’s questions. Usually, in those situations, our counsellors initiate the chat by talking about issues that are easier for our youngsters to talk about. For example, we may ask about how our young people have been doing today. Sometimes, it may in fact be something that’s happened during the day that has triggered a given conflict, explains Linea Pretzmann, and by talking generally about one’s day, you may be able to circle the issue at hand.

Other times, young people may address issues they have a hard time broaching. Many youngsters may chat for a long time before they get to the heart of their problem. Particularly when young people address heavy issues, does it take time and demands trust before they share their feelings, explains Linea Pretzmann:

“If our young people find it hard putting words to their problem, often you can help them by asking yes-/no-questions. ‘Does it have anything to do with your mother?’, ‘No’, ‘Is it something at school?’, ‘No’, Has it got something to do with your friend?’, ‘Yes’, ‘Okay.’ Using this approach you may slowly find out what someone really wants to talk about.”

A hug over the keyboard

Our young people cannot see the counsellors in our chat room. That is why our counsellors need to articulate empathy and comfort in ways that are otherwise possible in the physical world. For example, counsellors may give our young people a hug via the keyboard.

“If, for example, someone writes they are sad, a counsellor may give a verbal hug by responding: ‘I do understand it’s very difficult for you right now. It sounds like you are upset so here is a hug over the keyboard.’ Obviously, this never replaces a real hug but it is our way of showing our young people that there’s a real person on the other end who actually listens to them and who cares about them,” says Linea Pretzmann.

Often the verbal hug helps young people open up to us. Their messages typically become more elaborate and detailed when they feel safe and when they are confident the counsellors are listening to them and accommodating them when they are sad. However, sometimes we do not always succeed in creating a solid contact with our young people from the get-go. In those situations, it is important that you, as a counsellor, is analytical and compassionate about what the youngster is writing, and also that you are able to articulate the signals you receive from them:

“If someone provides very, very short replies, usually it is a sign that the contact is not effective. In order to establish presence and getting a bit closer to our youngsters in those situations, you may write: ‘I have a feeling that we’re not talking about the things you really would like to talk about. Is that correct?’ Other times, you may sense that you are asking questions which the youngster feels uncomfortable answering. In those situations, I usually write:

It sounds like it’s really difficult for you to talk about this. Is that true? Would you rather that we talk about something else first? In those situations, you as a counsellor, is responsible for finding other topics to chat about, and usually you find some. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a contact not being restored,” explains Linea Pretzmann.

The chat must help young people feel safe

Often it is easier for young people to get in touch with a chat counselling rather than reaching out to a physical counselling, partly because chat counselling allows them to remain anonymous. Therefore, a lot of young people share issues in our chat counselling they have not yet told others in their social circle. But the chat is not intended to be a substitute to seeking help elsewhere – on the contrary, it must be considered a first step toward supporting young people opening up and sharing problems they would otherwise carry by themselves.

So, chat counsellors focus on preparing young people to seek help, either within their immediate relationships or with an adult they trust. Johnny Szumlanski and Linea Pretzmann are always very aware of what resources their young people seem to hold – both within themselves as well as resources attained to their close relationships. And counsellors then try to make their youngsters confident in utilising those resources.

“Chat counselling is a very good option for young people who sit at home alone in their room with a problem they do not wish to say out loud. It provides new opportunities for them to talk to an adult. Then, of course, you may question whether it substitutes talking to others about their problem. However, I view chatting as an opportunity to make youngsters feel secure enough to share their problems with others,” concludes Linea Pretzmann. And Johnny Szumlanski agrees – he is certain that anonymous chat counselling creates new opportunities for a large group of children and young people who would otherwise not get help.

By Camilla Tang Jensen, communications consultant, CfDP.

This article is originally posted in Danish.

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