The one thing above all else I wish they would have taught in library school is that often times you become a therapist of sorts. The small things are easy to handle: stress from school, fights among friends, or the need to blow off steam in general. But how do you deal with the tougher stuff? The things that affect their well-being like depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, or hundreds of other things that could seriously go wrong in a teens life.
In my 7 years as a teen services librarian, I’ve had some doozies. Some have been easy to handle, like when kids have come out as gay/bi/asexual/trans. Those teens need reassurance that the library is still a safe space, no matter who they are. Most of the time letting them know that how they identify makes no difference/you’ll see them the same is all they’re looking for. The relief in their faces when they realize nothing will change is heartwarming and solidifies how important it is that libraries be welcoming to all.
Then some moments that aren’t so easy. I’ll admit there have been several times that a teen has caught me off guard by telling me something. The shock of the moment meant I didn’t handle it very well, and later had to go back and apologize to the teen. We had a little talk about what I could do to make it easier on the teen and I consciously watched what I said after that. It’s even harder if the teen tells you something they don’t want the rest of the group to know as you have to make sure they’re not saying anything harmful as well without saying why. These moments have been learning experiences for sure, but they’ve made me a better librarian.
My hardest situation was when a couple of teens came to me concerned about another teen who was having suicidal thoughts. This was the first time I felt truly helpless. Had the teen themselves come to me, there would have been so much I could have done, but without the teen being there my hands were tied. I talked the teens through what to do, including giving hotline numbers and encouraging them to get her to talk to an adult. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go home with a very heavy heart that night. This is definitely nothing they talked about in library school.
The sad part, of course, is only a small fraction of the teens really come to talk to us. This is why I’m such an avid support of the tough issue bookmarks, especially ones that have hotlines numbers on the back. There are a lot of examples out there, but here are just a couple. Here is also an example of my own.
The biggest thing I want you to take out of this is that teen will see you as a trusted adult. You’ll have blunders and missteps, but it’s okay to admit you don’t know either. It’s okay to use that time to research things/talk together and point them in the right direction. Sometimes they’ll just need someone to listen to them, but other times you need to point them their parents for more help than you can give. Teens’ lives are rough and it’s awesome that we can be such an important part of their lives.