If you work with young people, you play a vital role in supporting their mental health and wellbeing. Active listening is an essential skill that can help you create a safe and supportive space for young people to talk about their feelings and experiences.
What is active listening?
Active listening is a way of listening attentively to someone and demonstrating that you are fully engaged in the conversation. It involves not only hearing what someone is saying, but also understanding their emotions, thoughts and concerns.
By actively listening, you can help young people feel heard and understood, which can be a powerful tool in building trust and supporting their mental health.
When I was listened to I felt trusted and respected… it included me not excluded me.
Things to try
Here are some tips on how you can practise active listening with young people.
When a young person wants to talk, demonstrate you’re paying attention to them and taking them seriously. Stay focused on what the young person is saying and listen without interrupting or judging. Eye contact is often important, but too much may be intimidating and some people don't like much eye contact at all. Avoid distractions such as having your phone out or other conversations happening around you.
Validating someone's feelings means acknowledging that their emotions are real and important. You can do this by saying things like "It's okay to feel that way" or "I can understand why you would feel that way".
Give space for the young person to express their feelings without judgement or interruption, and reflect their feelings back to them. For example, "It sounds like you're feeling really sad about this".
Open-ended questions are questions that require more than a yes or no answer. They encourage young people to talk more and share their thoughts and feelings. Examples of open-ended questions include "How did that make you feel?" or "What happened next?"
It can be tempting to jump in and fill a silence with an offer of advice, a solution or your own experience. However, it's important to remember that making space for silence gives the young person the chance to consider if there's anything else they want to share. Often silences aren't as long as they can feel - particularly if a young person is sharing something that feels big or unknown to them. Make sure your body language remains engaged, so the young person knows you're still paying attention.
Paraphrasing means repeating back what the young person has said in your own words. This can help to clarify any misunderstandings and show that you have understood.
Summarising involves putting together the main points of what the young person has said.
In both instances, try not to put your own perspective on what they have said. When young people hear their comments reflected back, it can help them see the bigger picture and identify patterns themselves.
By practising active listening, you can create a safe and supportive environment for young people to talk about their mental health. Remember to be patient and non-judgmental, and to show that you care about what they are saying. Your support can make a real difference in helping young people to manage their mental health and build resilience for the future.
Pitfalls to watch out for
While active listening can be an effective tool in supporting young people's mental health and wellbeing, there are also some pitfalls to avoid. Below are some common pitfalls to be aware of.
It's important to avoid judging or criticising what the young person is saying. Even if you don't agree with their point of view, show them that you respect their perspective.
Being distracted or not fully present during the conversation can make the young person feels like you are not interested in what they have to say. It's important to give the person speaking your full attention and demonstrate that you are fully engaged in the conversation.
You may be tempted to offer advice or solutions to young people's challenges. However, it's important to remember that your role is to listen and support, rather than to solve their problems. Instead, encourage young people to come up with their own solutions and offer support in helping them to do so. This way young people will be empowered to create their own solutions and acknowledge they are capable of doing so.
If a young person, or someone they know, is in immediate danger, call 999 for emergency help.
Interrupting someone while they are speaking can make them feel like you are not really listening to them. It's important to give the person speaking your full attention and let them finish speaking before responding. Make sure you have the time for the conversation before you start, or else arrange a time when you can talk.
Making assumptions about what the young person is thinking or feeling can be problematic. Instead, ask open-ended questions and let them tell you in their own words.
Treat yourself as the reader of a book rather than an author. You could interrupt but that's not your role.
Tips from those supporting young people in the community
We spoke to a number of adults who support young people. They shared the following advice for listening to a young person:
You don't need to have answers or 'good' responses, just providing the space is often enough.
Understand that even if you have a similar experience or knowledge of the topic, you will benefit from hearing and understanding the young person’s.
Be patient and don’t jump to conclusions.
Don't stop a young person from talking because you want to make or share a point.
Don’t worry about silences.
Try to use a bit of what the young person has said in your response as it shows you heard them.
Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.
Please be aware that this form isn’t a mental health support service. If you or a young person you work with is in crisis right now and wants to talk to someone urgently, find out who to contact on oururgent help page.
This page was created in October 2023.
It was created with input from our 2022-2023 Community Focus Group.
We will next review the page in 2026.
YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.
If you're looking for more tips and advice on how to talk to young people about their mental health, take a look at our other resources to support you.