The teenage boy on the phone has a problem — he’s not getting along with his father.
“Do you feel like your dad doesn’t love you?” Shannon Freud asks him.
“I know he does,” the caller replies.
“But do you feel like he doesn’t?” Shannon pushes him.
“Yeah,” he admits.
After listening some more, Shannon asks the caller if he thinks his dad is giving him mixed messages — not wanting to let him grow up, but at the same time needing him to be more independent. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had that conversation,” the boy agrees, relief in his voice.
It’s one of those moments that anyone who works with kids relishes: when you “get” what they’re telling you, and they get that you get it. A moment like that always stands out, but is perhaps a particular treat for Shannon tonight. Last week was March break in most parts of Canada and “pretty pranky,” she says — kids offering up outrageous stories, putting counsellors on speakerphone, laughing in the background. They can be trying, but even prank calls serve a purpose. “Kids are trying to test us out,” says Shannon. “It’s like they’re thinking ‘What would happen if we told them some big extravagant lie, what would they say? Would they tell us the truth?’”
Counsellors have a diploma or degree in child and youth counselling
Shannon is a counsellor at Kids Help Phone (kidshelpphone.ca, 1-800-668-6868), a national hotline for children and youth that’s available 24-7, and is free, confidential and anonymous. She has a background in counselling assaulted women and children and, before starting at Kids Help Phone almost four years ago, she worked at Katimavik, a residential volunteering program for 17- to 21-year-olds. Though she doesn’t have kids of her own yet, Katimavik taught her a lot about what it will be like when she does. “I was kind of like a single parent for 11 teenagers,” she says with a laugh.
All the counsellors at Kids Help Phone — there are about 100 — have a diploma or degree in child and youth counselling or applied social sciences, something like social work or psychology, explains Janice Currie, vice-president of counselling. And because many have worked in specific areas, such as addictions or eating disorders, their collective expertise is exhaustive. That’s good because kids call about every issue under the sun: overprotective parents, best friends who ignore them, wanting to be smarter. Sometimes they call in crisis; sometimes they disclose abuse. The number one reason kids call (23 percent) is because they’re experiencing mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. Number two is peer issues (22 percent); family relationships are third (13 percent).
This night is the first of five during which I am chatting with Shannon while she’s on shift. For privacy reasons, I’m not allowed in the room with her, but I’m checking in every couple of hours to hear what’s happening. One thing she’s noticed this Sunday evening is a mild panic in the air — tomorrow is the first day back at school. “We’ll often get something like ‘Hi, I’m being bullied. What should I do?’” says Shannon. “So you try to pull out information: ‘Who’s bullying you? How do you respond? How’s that working for you?’ A lot of the time, they just want to know how to deal with the situation and move on.”
Anonymity is central to their philosophy
Sometimes, though, they need more. Last week, Shannon took a call from a boy who told her he was sitting by a lake, ready to jump in — and not come out. “It was a really, really sad situation. His mom had just died, and she was the only support in his life,” says Shannon. “I said, ‘You know, if you kill yourself, that’s not giving yourself a chance to try to turn things around. All of this is temporary — you can work through it.’ But he wasn’t hearing any of that.”
So Shannon decided to call 911. This can be tricky; anonymity is central to the Kids Help Phone philosophy and kids are never required to give their names. But when a counsellor is worried about a child, she may ask for his name and number so she can send someone to help him. In this case, Shannon was able to get a description of the caller’s surroundings. Her supervisor contacted the local police (Kids Help Phone works with emergency services in every community in the country) while Shannon stayed on the phone with him, waiting for help to arrive.
Unfortunately, that never happened. “I thought the cops were there because I heard a commotion in the background, and then he hung up,” says Shannon, the pitch of her voice creeping up. “I found out later that the cops hadn’t actually found him.” All counsellors have to live with the fact that they can’t control what happens to the people they work hard to help. Phone counsellors, however, seldom even get to find out what happens. So how do they cope? In this case, Shannon told herself that the boy was calling from a big city and there were many places he might have gone for help. I detect a little sadness when she tells me simply, “I try to rewrite the story.”
A multiple-kid call sometimes spells P-R-A-N-K
The next time that I speak with Shannon, it’s seven o’clock the following evening. That night she took a call from two teen girls who were dating — each other. They wanted to talk about how to come out to their parents. A multiple-kid call in the after-school hours sometimes spells P-R-A-N-K, but this one was authentic. “I’m really glad that I let my guard down,” says Shannon. “They sounded like they had a really supportive relationship with each other, but they didn’t know how people were going to respond.”
When Shannon talks about calls to do with sex and sexuality, she always refers to how the caller “identifies”: gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered. Her matter-of-fact manner reflects Kids Help Phone’s implicit attitude to the question of kids’ sexual identities: Assume nothing and accept anything. “Some kids are kind of surprised that we don’t freak out when they say, ‘I’m gay,’” says Shannon. “They think it’s the end of the world — that they’re going to jail — even by giving it a name.”
A good counsellor is warm and empathic
I couldn’t resist teasing Shannon about her last name, given her line of work. The 32-year-old native of Thornhill, Ont., seems a natural for the field. “When people come to me and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you about something?’ I just melt,” she says. The idea of being a counsellor first came up when a friend in university told her she’d be good at it. I get a flavour of what that friend meant when I hear Shannon laugh — it’s a chuckle that’s both wise and tickled, the sound of a reassuring nudge, a friendly wink.
To be good at counselling, you have to enjoy it. Part of that is finding things to laugh about. Shannon has lots of funny stories to tell — like the call she took from a boy whose little brother, whom he was babysitting, had run away. After some probing, the boy told Shannon his brother was probably at a neighbour’s house. “Why don’t you go over there?” she asked. “I’m kind of in the middle of something,” he told her. “What are you doing?” asked Shannon. “Playing Xbox.” Shannon suggested that finding his brother might be more important, but the caller still resisted. Shannon changed tack. “Put away your Xbox and go find your brother!” she told him.
Typically, a good counsellor is warm and empathic; a good Kids Help Phone counsellor has to be warm and empathic over the phone — a whole other skill set. And since Kids Help Phone introduced online counselling in 2002, its staff has had to master another host of skills, including how to interpret the degree of pain in an online post. They work with the University of Toronto’s social work school to train staff in this relatively new area; it seems they’re on the right track, as online counselling requests increased tenfold from 2002 to 2008.
All the online counselling is public — anyone can go to kidshelpphone.ca, click on Ask a Counsellor and read hundreds of posts from kids, as well as responses. This may seem counterintuitive, given the importance of privacy, but privacy is part of the reason for it: Answering individual emails would require that kids provide contact information. Plus, any child visiting the site can reap the benefits of what counsellors have told other kids. (Kids Help Phone estimates each post is read 78 times.)
I recognize Shannon in her response to a recent post from a girl considering having sex for the first time. Before responding to her anxieties or answering her questions, Shannon first conveys excitement that the girl likes someone. It seems to me a brilliant and believable way to win the girl’s trust: Start by acknowledging — even celebrating — the exhilarating experience of sexual attraction, something many people shy away from with teens.
As I read more posts from different kids and the replies from different counsellors, two things are clear: One, kids come to life online. They post the way they speak — rambling, passionate, eloquent, hilarious, tortured, confused and, at times, utterly confusing. And two, the counsellors all sound as if they really like kids and they’re more than happy to hear from them — just the kind of people you’d want yours to go to if they couldn’t come to you.
My kids can come to me, you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t they?
But my kids can come to me, you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t they? Scroll through the Family Life posts under Ask a Counsellor and you’ll see many counsellors asking kids the very same question. You’ll see them working hard to promote positive relationships in the family: “How would you feel about sharing those feelings with your mom during one of the times when ‘she’s fine and your best friend’?” And you’ll see them trying to show kids their parents’ perspectives: “Can you see anything good about your mom’s relationship with her boyfriend?” (At the same time, when a child is describing abuse of any kind, rather than try to explain it, the counsellors will sympathize with the child and encourage her to get help. Counsellors have access to a database with almost 37,000 resources across Canada.)
Counsellors can even speak directly to parents. Several weeks ago, Shannon took a call from a nine-year-old who wanted to stay up an extra half-hour to watch her favourite TV show. The girl asked Shannon to speak to her mom and, in the ensuing three-way conversation, Shannon backed the mom up on the importance of bedtime, acting, almost, as a co-parent. And that boy Shannon talked to who sometimes feels his dad doesn’t love him? Shannon suggested that since they were so stuck, why didn’t he and his dad call Kids Help Phone together and let a counsellor help them speak to each other? The caller really liked this idea and thought his dad would “totally” be up for it too.
Sometimes kids need to bounce something off a non-invested grown-up before they can talk to their parents. Or they may not want to worry their mom and dad. Or maybe they’re freaked out about something and know telling their parents could up the ante on their own anxiety. We all go to different people for help with different issues; kids are no different. Shannon says she’s planning to tattoo the Kids Help Phone number on her future kids’ foreheads. “As much as I’d like to think they’ll come and talk to me,” she says, “the reality is, they may not.”
Reaching out for help
5–20 Ages of Kids Help Phone clients
220,045 Number of calls answered in 2008
29,195 Number of online counselling requests received in 2008
70% Percentage of respondents to a Kids Help Phone survey who said they were bullied online