In a school principal’s office in Thimphu not long ago, a long leather strap attached to a cane hung behind the door, alongside a note that read ‘When Counselling Fails.’ This alternative approach, often referred to as ‘counselling by other means,’ was prevalent in Bhutanese schools until it was officially deemed corporal punishment and subsequently banned through an official circular in 1997.

This form of counselling was typically administered for acts such as bunking classes, smoking, incomplete homework, or disruptive behaviour in the classroom – actions considered serious and unacceptable at the time.

In the present day, our children and youth face a myriad of complex issues. They are well-connected, informed, and exposed, yet simultaneously sensitive, vulnerable, and fragile. Mental health issues and behavioural disorders have evolved into a national concern, prompting government, civil society organisations (CSOs), and the donor community to prioritise addressing these challenges.

The role of counsellors has adapted to suit the current context, with peer counsellors, teacher counsellors, and clinical counsellors available both in person and online to assist young individuals in navigating various issues. In tandem with these efforts, local CSOs and the international donor community have played a significant role by contributing funds, expertise, and experience. Research indicates that Bhutanese children often experience various forms of violence – physical, sexual, emotional – significantly impacting their mental wellbeing. The shared objective of these entities is to ‘end violence against children,’ and they have implemented activities designed to achieve this goal.

While it is encouraging that some initiatives have extended beyond organisational boundaries to engage directly with parents and children in communities, caution must be exercised to ensure these efforts do not become mere ‘hand-out’ programs.

Acknowledging that parents, family members, and neighbours are pivotal counsellors for children and youth, there is a need to enhance awareness that, at times, these same individuals may inadvertently contribute to counterproductive outcomes for the wellbeing of children.

As the 2023 academic session concludes, schoolchildren across the country will embark on winter vacation, spending time at home, in communities, and urban centres. Unfortunately, it has become almost routine for youth and teenagers to become involved in violence during this period, leading to incarceration or, tragically, loss of life.

Law enforcement agencies, while remaining vigilant, cannot bear the sole responsibility of preventing youth-related issues. The onus must begin at home. Some of us may recall growing up with disciplinary measures like being slapped for talking while eating. As responsible parents, it is imperative to set aside distractions such as television programs and smartphones, engaging in meaningful conversations with our children, even during meals – a form of counselling that holds significant value for their overall development.