Education: Given room to be themselves: Relate counsellors are helping teenagers to build self-esteem, says Vicki Power

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HARDLY a week goes by without news of some crime committed by a teenager. Even if they are not out joyriding or mugging pensioners, many seem to be drifting, feeling anxious and unsure of themselves and what is expected of them.

Their parents are not encouraging their self-esteem or nurturing in them a system of ethics. Teachers complain they do not have the time or training to do it.

It is a problem that several secondary schools in Brighton are tackling. Since April, 14- and 15-year-olds at Patcham High School have been taking part in an experimental course to raise self-esteem, Room To Be Me. Most important, from the teenagers' point of view, the courses are being led by counsellors from Relate, the marriage guidance organisation, and not teachers, who are seen, according to one student, as 'part of the system'.

By their fifth session, they have overcome their fear of being laughed at by their peers - teenage Angst is taken seriously. Each student has signed a contract pledging not to gossip about or to criticise the views of others. Those who laugh or take the mickey are asked to explain their behaviour.

'When we first started coming, everyone was really quiet, they didn't trust each other,' says Susie, 15. 'But the counsellor was interested in everything we had to say, she took us seriously and put herself on our level. We all started to talk and listen to each other. I think parents would be quite shocked to hear some of the things we talk about.'

No subject is taboo, and the counsellors have no set agenda. Relationships, exams, drugs and parents are the teenagers' favourite topics, though talking about sex elicits uncomfortable titters from some.

The goal is to enhance self-esteem by encouraging them to talk about what worries them in an atmosphere of trust, where they feel valued by a caring adult and their peer group. For many it is a unique experience.

Some pluck up the courage to air serious personal problems. Bob, 15, says the sessions are helping him to change his behaviour: 'I do drugs. I used to just wander through life thinking it was all right. Now I've heard everybody's views in the group, I've decided I want to cut it down, get it under control, because at the moment it's controlling me. The group is the only place I can talk about it.'

Family problems, especially divorce, are high on the agenda. For Linda, 15, her parents' divorce drove her to consider suicide: 'I felt so angry with my father. Since I've been to the group I get on better with him because I understand it's not just me going through the pain, it's him as well.' She revealed that she had been seeing a psychiatrist: 'I haven't told anyone else, only the group.'

Susie has talked of her jealousy of the new baby in the family: 'My parents would feel hurt that I was feeling a bit left out, so I can't talk to them about it. There was another girl in the group whose mother just had a baby as well, so it was good to compare our feelings.'

Graduates of the course and its current participants cannot praise it enough. They seem to have found a solution, if only in the short term, to the age-old problem of teenage isolation. Being asked to trust others has been a powerful experience for them.

'It's definitely had long-term effects,' says Alex, 17, from Varndean College, one of four Brighton schools that has run the course for sixth-formers over the past two years. 'I'm not an open person, but the group was so intimate that I didn't feel inhibited. I haven't dramatically changed or anything, but now I don't box everything up so much.'

Bob found the fact that the group was mixed useful. 'I've learnt what the girls think about sex and that. Normally you don't talk to girls about it, it's when you're out with your mates you talk about it, so you get a one-sided story. I think I'd know how to make a girl feel better now.'

Elizabeth says: 'It's made me more decisive. Like, before Christmas, I wasn't happy with my boyfriend, so I ended the relationship. Before, I would have stuck with it to see if it got better. But now I think that if I'm unhappy, I can do something about it.'

The sixth-formers say they felt bereaved when the course ended. Jessica, 17, says: 'I see people who were in the group, and I know so much about them, but now we just say 'hi' to each other. It's quite hurtful, really.'

Room To Be Me was voluntary for the Varndean sixth-formers, but at Patcham it is compulsory. Some students there are unsure about its value. One boy says: 'I don't think people should talk about their feelings, they should keep them to themselves.' Others say they felt disloyal talking about their parents and a few disliked talk about sex.

Many students prefer listening to talking, but that is not good for group dynamics. Myra Bianco, training and development officer for Relate in Brighton and the creator of Room To Be Me, says: 'They're all very eager to listen, which is good, but I try to tell them that in order to receive they also have to give. They have to talk about themselves if they want to be privy to other people's feelings.'

Liz Fletcher, Patcham High headteacher, has no doubt about the course. 'We feel a lot of our children don't reach their potential because of low self-esteem, and 14 is such a difficult age for them, caught between childhood and adulthood. If we can crack it now it will make such a difference in their lives.'

Pending the outcome of an evaluation of Room To Be Me by the University of Sussex, Ms Bianco and Relate intend to lobby the Government for funds to take the course into schools all over the country, ideally as part of the personal and social education requirement of the national curriculum.

'Relate is the best organisation to carry out this work,' says Ms Bianco. 'It's already a national organisation, and we are professional counsellors. Young people need help in learning to value themselves, but their teachers aren't trained in this kind of work. We can help them.'

'The good thing was I felt I didn't have to justify myself, whereas I feel I have to with my friends,' says Jessica. 'Now, if I have a problem, I'll think, what would my Room To Be Me group do?'

(Photograph omitted)