In my work with youth, I often see this same exhaustion and have come to recognize it as a common hurdle between youth and the professional supports they are needing. Despite how it feels, shifting the feeling of hopelessness and finding the perfect support is possible, it just may take new tools to bolster hope, resilience, and resourcefulness.
What is Emotional Support Burnout?
Emotional Support Burnout (ESB) is, in essence, a combination of the fear of being vulnerable with a new support and the emotional labour associated with getting to know a new professional health-care worker. It often manifests as a loss of motivation and hope that professional help will support them and as hesitation or reluctance to meet with another professional. In my experience, it is a sign that reaching out to supports in the past has left the youth feeling the opposite of supported. This means that on top of the more commonly understood fears surrounding vulnerability, communication, and the pressure to open up to a stranger, we also are working to rewrite the youth's negative pre-existing idea that support won't amount to what they are looking for. In other words, the feeling that nothing will help them. You may have even heard your youth say this. This is often a clue that, not only is the youth not being supported by the systems we put in place to support them, but they also believe that this lack of connection is evidence that there is no hope for them to find the right professional support. ESB can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when youth resist connection and use this lack of connection as evidence that they will always be misunderstood. Interrupting this cycle, creating a support system to combat isolation, and using these tools to create unity, hope, and connection is always my first advice.
Importantly, ESB is different from youth who have consistently not or never wanted professional support. While youth who have never wanted support may still be fearful about the process and the vulnerability it entails, ESB is characterized by youth losing hope in finding the right support for them, often after multiple attempts.
I recognize ESB by a few key traits, mainly:
As a disclaimer, the suggestions below are not intended for youth who do not want support, but rather, are tools to bolster the resilience and hope of youth who want professional help but who feel discouraged, hopeless, or lost.
Humanizing the Need for Support
Often, a youth's association of the need for support with "wrongness" or "brokenness" can leave them feeling isolated, misunderstood, "othered" and ostracized. An important first step to normalizing support is contextualizing the youth's need for support in the larger, global human experience.
Articulating that every person needs emotional support throughout their life and that, as a species, humans are designed to lean on the collative strength of our communities can help to shift negative feelings. A willingness to humanize the process of needing support by speaking about a time in one's life when perhaps you, the guardian, also needed to connect with an external support for emotional or structural aid may also be helpful.
In addition, working to increase mental health awareness and educating your family or community on the normality of mental illness and the need for external assistance can be incredibly supportive for those experiencing hardship. Reiterating that people with, and recovered from, mental illness live fulfilling and beautiful lives can provide a valuable contextualization and the resounding message that they, the youth, are not alone.
Acknowledging and Validating
As always, it is important to acknowledge and validate the experiences of the youth. There is emotional labor associated with getting comfortable with a new support and acknowledging this can make a huge difference in a youth's willingness to keep trying, take a break, and try again. How can we acknowledge the emotional labor of reaching out? Sentiments such as this may be helpful.
“I see that you did not like/feel supported with
Imagine saying this, sincerely, on the car ride back from an initial meeting which did not go well. How could this change the dynamic or offer encouragement to your youth?
Starting with an "I" statement and remembering that the goal is not only to tell your youth that you see that they reached out, but that you know that is a hard thing to do and you are proud of their strength, and continued efforts, is important. In addition, permission to take a break, try new avenues, and imagine new ways of support can be helpful.
Building a Team
Communicating to your youth that they, and their wellbeing, is a priority for you and that you are honoured to collaborate along side them, can meaningfully solidify the feeling of working as a team.
Organizing a “Strike team” of key support networks people who your youth can reach out too, who are (potentially) aware of the current struggles, and who are also working towards the common goal of finding the perfect professional and/or supporting the youth, can make a huge difference. Additionally, shifting language from "you" statements to "us/we" statements can bring unity.
Example: "When you find what you need" to "When we find what we/you need"
This language can help solidify the feeling of working as a team and can help relieve the potential for guilt and isolation. This shift will also ensure a level foundation to start on, giving them a voice in the process, as well as emphasising our first tool, “Humanizing the Need for Support”.
Youth seeking support often feel like a burden, like it is their need for support against the needs of everyone else (the needs of the family/sibling/parent). They may feel the burden of asking for rides, payment, paperwork etc. However small the effort may be for the guardian, for many youths this is just another reason not to reach out again.
Working to ensure that your youth knows, and feels, the ways that you are available to help them and that they are reminded of your willingness to help, can create trust and comfort. Having clear conversations surrounding needs, expectations, and priorities can alleviate possible guilt and discomfort about asking for help. For example, articulating that you are happy to drive your youth for their Friday and Tuesday appointments but that they need to arrange for transportation home from their Wednesday consultation, creates clear boundaries and expectations. Preparation, planning, communication, and accountability are key to youth knowing what they need, when they need it, and who is available to help them. Creating a framework which assumes, and accounts for, teamwork normalizes receiving support and shifts feelings of guilt over receiving it.
Youth, at any age, are all to aware of the financial investment getting support can mean from a parent’s point of view. This often brings an added reluctance to keep trying, as well as a feeling of guilt if they do not resonate with supports. Because of this, working to assure your youth that you are also dedicated to the/their efforts to find support can make a big difference.
Youth will often hold back from bonding with a new support if they feel it will be short lived. Because of this I am honored to offer sliding-scale financial aid, to ensure that the coaching process, for as long as is needed, will not be financially straining. I strongly believe that emotional support should never put your family under emotional stress. Ensuring a worried youth that their wellbeing is a financial priority, that it is being taken care of, or that payment is not an issue, can help them release guilt or worry about being a burden.
Marking the Differences & Nicknames
I find that a turning point for ESB is when the list of past attempted avenues or professionals begins to blur into a nondescript mass of frustration and discomfort. Once the details begin to slip and individual memories blend, it becomes easy for youth to reshape the narrative of their past appointments into something that feeds their belief that professional help will not support them and that they are alone.
Giving the past professionals nicknames which are rooted in one notable aspect from the interaction can ground the memories in reality, help to remember specifics, and is an opportunity to create bonding and to individualize the different people. This can help the list from becoming a mass of half remembered names, waiting rooms and experiences. Perhaps one professional was an especially good listener, the other lit a candle before each session, or maybe one was very arts focused. These small details are a great starting place for the nicknames. For instance, perhaps instead of, “Dr. Alder” you call them, “Dr. Lots of Throw Pillows”. Not only does it cement a positive aspect with the experience, but it bonds you and your youth. Combined, we have a list of individual experiences rather then a slew of tedious meetings and appointments, and we are growing an understanding of what we like and what does not work for us. This is a huge win and can help battle the feeling of being stuck or hopeless. As a side note, I recommend a handy list (preferably on your phone) of actual names and corresponding nicknames.
Adding moments or jokes that only you and your youth would understand can help to deepen connection and the feeling of unity, as described in the tool “Building a Team”. Also, creating space for articulation and acknowledgment of what didn’t work for your youth is important.
Shifting Our Language
When communicating with youth about finding a professional they resonate with it is important to both validate their experiences and efforts and to speak positively about the continued search. Language that reframes the hunt for the right support as something important and worth spending time and energy on can help dispel feelings of hopelessness, and of being a burden. Focusing on the progress made and the eventual joy of finding the best person for your youth can be helpful. The task of simultaneously validating the emotional labor of repeated vulnerability and working to help them feel supported and bonded in their efforts to find a supportive modality, can truly heal feelings of hopelessness, isolation, burden, and "otherness".
Used individually or collectively, this list of tools may provide subtle shifts in your youth’s tonality towards the journey of finding the best fit for them. These small changes can make the difference between feeling isolated or feeling supported during the search for external resources.
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