Finding a Safe Adult: Advice for Kids

Some tips for young people, and the adults who care about them

This material was excerpted from the original manuscript for the book, High School’s Not ForeverThis book was written for teens, as well as the adults in their lives. Originally included on a (now-defunct) website for young people, I’m including it here with notes and suggestions for adults at the bottom of this page, to help caring adults (including mandated reporters*) support the young people in their lives.

Of all the factors necessary for a student to succeed in high school, none has been proven to be more important then having at least one adult who is there for you and supports you unconditionally. Sometimes these people are easy to find and may be as close your living room. Other times that special adult may work in your school. If you have not already found a supportive adult, here’s how to seek out someone you can trust to be there for you and have your back when you need them.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have parents, extended family members, teachers, clergy, or other adults in our lives that we can turn to for support and guidance. However, many students do not have safe and supportive adults in their lives. Hundreds of books have been written on how to best help teens succeed in school and in life, and yet the most important factor seems to be having at least one adult in your life you can count on for support no matter what.

OK, so what does a safe adult look like and how do you go about finding one? The good news is that there are many adults who are willing and able to support you as you move through your high school years. It does take some effort on your part to identify these adults and to connect with them.

Characteristics of safe adults:

  • Safe adults tend to lead balanced lives. They are not always in a state of crisis.
  • Safe adults are generally consistent in their interactions with you. Although they, like all of us, have good and bad days, they do not listen to you patiently one moment and then yell at you the next. 
  • Safe adults do not make you feel uncomfortable. They are not sexually or emotionally inappropriate with you.
  • Safe adults are not looking to be seen as cool by teens. They understand that they are adults and are not looking to be a part of your peer group.
  • Safe adults can clearly tell you that they do not like something that you may have done while still letting you know that they like you as a person. Their agendas and expectations are limited—or at least reasonable and relevant to what’s important to you.
  • Safe adults do not always tell you what you should do. They give you choices and help you think through the possible consequences of each choice. 
  • Safe adults do not gossip or bad mouth others. Watch out for someone who tells you secrets about others or says a lot of bad things about them to you. There is a very good change that they will also talk about you in this way to others.
  • Safe adults are also human. They do not always know the answer to a particular question and they honestly admit when they do not know. They make mistakes like the rest of us and it is important not to put anyone on too high of a pedestal.

How to find safe adults:

  • Talk to adults. Safe adults are not likely to just come looking for you. You will need to interact with a number of adults in order to determine which ones you feel comfortable with.
  • Ask the adults if they are willing to listen to you when you have questions or problems. Ask when it would be ok to call, text, stop into their office, or email them. Ask them to clarify their boundaries: Can you call them at home or at work or after 10 P.M.? What is an emergency and what can wait until tomorrow?
  • Start by sharing little things about yourself and see how the adult reacts. Do not just sit down and tell all of your deepest secrets and fears the first time you chat.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of looking for the “cool” teacher, neighbor etc. Many safe adults are more laid back and are not looking to be the center of attention.
  • Listen to your instincts. Just as you can tell which teachers really care about kids and which are counting the days until they retire (or until you move out), if you focus you can get a good feel for which adults are sincere and which really are not to be counted upon.

Build a network of safe adults.

According to research by the Search Institute in Minneapolis, teens need at least three adults in their lives (besides their parents) who they can go to for advice and support.
—Rebecca Greene

Safe, trusted adult in my lifeWho can you go to for career guidance? Relationship advice? Academic help? Health, body, or addiction issues? What other areas of your life might benefit from the counsel of a trusted adult? Where else could you find an adult you can trust who would be available for you?

It is important to have more than one safe adult to count on. Even the most dependable person may not be available all of the time. People go on vacation, have crises of their own, or even leave the area. It is a good idea to have a back-up person or even a couple of people who you can turn to in a time of crisis.

The book, High School’s Not Forever, includes a set of cards that can be copied and carried in a wallet or purse. It includes space to record the names and contact information of adults you trust you can reach out to.  It also includes cards for kids to hand to a trusted adult, although the message can certainly be handwritten or delivered verbally. 

Please note: A card like this carries a great deal of trust and responsibility, and a truly safe adult will respond as quickly as possible. Make sure to include your name and contact information. Make it easy for the person to find you (or even remember who handed him or her the card)!

A special note for adults:

One of the biggest complaints we got from teens and young adults who had experienced some form of trauma, addiction, depression, or major change in their lives was that although they were clearly in distress, “nobody seemed to notice.” We are asking the significant adults in kids’ lives—including family members, neighbors, and school staff—to please pay attention! 

The book also included the cards on the left to hand to kids who seem distracted, agitated, or disturbed in some way, kids who are behaving differently than you know them (generally not in a good way). Sometimes, just knowing someone is there for us is enough. Not all kids will take advantage of the offer, but every single one we spoke to who said that an adult who told them in some way that “my door is always open,” left them feeling reassured, validated, and nowhere near as isolated as they had been feeling. 

If you want to be a safe adult for the young people you care about, check out the advice to kids above and make sure you fill the criteria for being “safe.”

Note: Confidentiality was key, however we made it clear to kids that we would need to seek help if anything the kid shared suggested that the young person was being hurt by someone, that the kid was hurting (or planning to hurt) someone else, or that this individual was hurting himself or herself. This is a moral obligation as well as a legal one: All states identify “mandated reporters,” people who are required by law to file reports of threats (actual or potential) to the safety and welfare of young people. 

These professionals can include health care providers, mental health providers, crisis counselors, school personnel, social workers, day care providers, clergy, and law enforcement personnel among others. “In an effort to encourage more adults to speak up on behalf of children, some states have changed their laws to require any person, (regardless of profession) who suspects child abuse or neglect, to report to authorities.” *

* From “Who is Required to Report?” from the Stop It Now! website. 

Excerpted and adapted from High School’s Not Forever, Jane Bluestein, PhD and Eric Katz, MSAC (© 2005, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL)

© 2005, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein and Eric Katz, MSAC

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