How much should you share with youth?

Sharing personal stories can be helpful when working with young people, but what and how much should you share?

It is human nature to feel more connected to someone as you learn more about them. This is how we find commonality and develop empathy. Self-disclosure is a term that therapists use to describe the act of sharing personal information with a client. It can be helpful for volunteers who work with children and youth to consider what has been learned through research on self-disclosure.

Many volunteers seek to create a strong relationship with youth – this is particularly true for mentors, coaches and others who have frequent contact with the same young people. Michigan State University Extension believes that positive relationships with caring adults are essential to youth development. To foster any relationship, it is important for both parties to share. So, how much should you share? How can you keep the focus on the young person while being open to sharing?

The literature suggests that it is helpful to share basic information about your educational history, career, relationship and family status. This information can and should be communicated early on. Sharing details of your life will encourage the young person to do the same. This does not mean you should share private details about your relationships – you just want to let the young person know who is in your inner circle and what your life looks like. Only discuss topic areas that are comfortable for you.

Think about the young people with whom you have close relationships. They probably love finding similarities with you. My nieces love when we like the same song, it makes them feel closer to me. Share when you see commonalities, even if it is as simple as a favorite food. Adults can also help build relationships by sharing stories of their past challenges. For instance, if your mentee is fired from a job, it would be appropriate to share a similar experience you had and how you grew from the experience.

Sharing experiences will likely lead to discussion about the related emotions. Young people can sometimes struggle to identify or deal with intense feelings. Knowing that others have felt something similar can help. It also evens the playing field. So often, adults are in a power position over young people. The power begins to balance when a relationship forms that allows for mutual sharing and the recognition that we are all special and we all make mistakes.

If you do not know if you should share something, it is best to hold back. Let your intuition guide you. 

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