Self-disclosure is one of the most anxiety-provoking topics that arise when I train professionals working with adolescents. Therapists, teachers, probation staff, etc. all have reasons why they don’t engage in self-disclosure with the young people they work with: “I was trained not to talk about myself,” or “I don’t want them to know anything about me,” among other statements. The number one fear I encounter is that professionals believe the information they share will in some way be manipulated and used against them. The truth is, that although this happens from time to time (as it does in any relationship), adolescents for the most part will respect your disclosures, view you more as a human being, and oftentimes not ruminate on your story. I’m certainly not saying you should disclose everything about yourself or anything that’s inappropriate. And you shouldn’t disclose information about yourself you don’t want any of the other youth to know (other youth at the school, in your class, etc.). What I’m suggesting is that self-disclosure, when done in a skillful way, will enhance the relationship, which in turn produces better outcomes (i.e., engagement in school, counseling, etc.). Here, I will offer a brief introduction into skillful self-disclosure and how it may show up in a very common interaction with youth: Their curiosity about your personal drug history. This post is simply an introduction, and a much more in-depth review of what self-disclosure is and how to do it skillfully can be found in the BARs Online course.
What makes self-disclosure skillful?
There is actually a fairly simple answer to the above question: Before disclosing anything about yourself to a young person, ask yourself “is this in his or her best interest?” When you ask yourself this question you automatically put yourself in a reflective state, a mind state in which you’re more likely to think about what you say prior to saying it (better than blurting things out of course!). You may decide to disclose something, or decide to not disclose something, and you could be right or wrong in whether it was a good idea to disclose that information. But the key is that when you ask yourself that question, you’re setting yourself up to be more skillful. You don’t want to fall into the trap of over-disclosing without any forethought, then the young person becomes your counselor. Also, you don’t want to get in the habit of never saying anything about yourself, then the young person starts to view you as a robot who won’t be genuine with him or her. The reality is that self-disclosure can be a tricky skill to master, but with practice can be a powerful tool to enhance relationships and contribute to better outcomes, whether you’re a teacher, group home or juvenile hall staff, a therapist, etc.
Let’s take a very common example that comes up for many adults working with youth: drugs. A youth who’s engaging in drinking and drug use may ask you:
“Do you do drugs?”
How would you respond? What if you are an ex-alcoholic? What if you still engage in recreational drinking or marijuana use as a professional adult? Think about yourself in that situation for a few moments and notice what comes up: discomfort, anxiety, feeling challenged, or any other emotions. Of course, when we practice skillful self-disclosure, the skillful component occurs in managing those emotions. But after managing our emotions, what do you actually do? What should you say? If the young person you’re talking to is struggling with drugs and you say you never did drugs, she or he may say “well how could you help me?” If you disclose that you did do drugs in the past (or currently), he or she may say, “well if you did drugs and turned out okay, why can’t I?”
You’ve been called on to engage in self-disclosure, and your choice to do so or not will depend on your level of comfort. The outcome of your choice relies on your ability to be skillful in the moment (“is this in their best interest?”) and gaining experience from there.
Below are 3 responses to the question, “Did you do drugs?” and the follow-up questions that naturally arise depending on the situation you’re in. These are basic situations and all assume: 1) that you’re working in some way with a young person (or group of young people) struggling with drugs—drug use gets them into trouble in some way, 2) that you have built or are building an authentic relationship, 3) that you’ve engaged in the process of skillful self-disclosure and determined it was okay to self-disclose, and 4) there is some form of backlash to your self-disclosure from the young person.
Situation 1: “Well how could you help me then?”
Young person: “Do you or have you ever done drugs?”
Adult: “No. I don’t drink or do drugs and never have?”
Young person: “Well how could you help me then? You’ve never been through what I’m going through so I don’t think you can help me.”
Adult: “I know I’ve never done drugs before, and if I were in your place I’d probably be skeptical too, but just because I haven’t had the same experience as you doesn’t mean I don’t want to help you. I may have never done drugs, but I want to help you as best as I can; have an authentic relationship with you and help you reach goals that we both agree on. Could we at least try that?”
Situation 2: “You did drugs so why can’t I?”
[This response of course assumes the below would be true about you, as it is for me. This should of course be tailored to your experience]
Young person: “Do you or have you ever done drugs?”
Adult: “You know, yeah, I have. I struggled with drugs at around your age.”
Young person: “Well hold on! You’re saying you did drugs but I shouldn’t? If you did drugs then why can’t I? You seem to have turned out okay.”
Adult: “Well to be clear, I’m actually not here to tell you what to do; to not do drugs or any specific behaviors. But I do see why you’d ask that question. For me, I had to stop doing drugs because I was getting in a lot of trouble; trouble with my family, friends, and the law. I was in and out of juvenile hall and I had to make a decision; to either keep abusing drugs and keep getting locked up for doing stupid things or to change my life around. I made the choice to transform my life. It appears that you’re at a similar cross road: You can either keep using and getting into trouble like I did, or you can make the choice to start the path of changing your life. What do you think of that?”
Situation 3: “You use a little, so why can’t I?”
[This situation assumes you use drugs or drink recreationally, inconsistently, and would not fit criteria for abuse or dependence; this is many of the youth providers out there]
Young person: “Do you do drugs right now?”
Adult: “No. I don’t use drugs, but I drink a little every now and again; a glass of wine with friends or a beer watching the game.”
Young person: “Oh that’s cool. Yeah, I think that’s good. That’s what I want to do too. Be like you. Just drink socially or smoke weed every once in a while.”
Adult: “I hear you. And I just want to be clear that I wanted to tell you that about myself because I want us to be honest with each other. I didn’t want to lie and say I never drank if I did from time to time. What I think is important though, is to consider the different life stages you and I are in. I’m an adult, it’s legal for me to drink, but more importantly, drinking/drugs aren’t getting me into a lot of trouble right now and they are for you. I’ve went through times of complete sobriety in my life and because you’re struggling at a high level, it concerns me when you think that way about ‘just using drugs recreationally.’ I want you to be honest and answer this question: Given how much drugs you’ve done recently, do you think you could ‘just use recreationally’ right now if you tried?”
(BONUS) Situation 4: You’re using drugs/drinking to the point where you fit the criteria for substance abuse or dependence (addiction)
You shouldn’t be engaging in any substance abuse work with youth; therapy intervention, prevention, etc. If you’re a teacher and can do your job but consider yourself drug and/or alcohol addict, seek professional support. If a youth asks you about your drug habits it may be more skillful to not disclose anything about your use at that time. You may hit an impasse with the youth by not disclosing, but if you’re not ready to engage that conversation then you’re practicing skillful non-disclosure, which is also a very important tool.
The above scenarios all call upon self-disclosure in some way and will differ according to individuals’ life experiences. What’s important is that you know how to respond to the above questions in a skillful way. Being able to self-disclose makes you look more human and will contribute to deeper relationships with youth. Remember, skillful in this instance means that you ask yourself “is what I’m about to say in the best interest of the young person?” If you think yes, disclose. If you think no, don’t disclose. You may be right sometimes, and wrong at other times, but at least you’re practicing skillfully. Your skill will deepen with experience and help you in difficult situations like above.
To learn more about building authentic relationships with youth, take the BARs Online course.
To learn more about substance abuse work with youth or to become certified in a mindfulness-based substance abuse intervention for adolescents, click here.