Youth worker Nick Luxmoore was filled with despair when he first heard the stories of young refugees who had escaped to Oxford from countries where genocide, murder, rape and blood were part of everyday life.

At first, he wondered what he could do to help, because the stories were completely different from those he was used to hearing in his job as a school counsellor and psychotherapist, based at King Alfred’s School in Wantage. “You’re hearing about other countries — genocide, murder, rape, blood — all that kind of stuff,” he explained.

While the occasional UK-born teenager might be dealing with the effects of sexual abuse, rape or a killing, for most young people in Britain, life is not so extreme. However, as time went on, Nick realised that while the stories were different, the young people were still developmentally similar to English teenagers and need similar things.

Feeling Like Crap: Young People and the Meaning of Self-Esteem is his third book. Like his first two, Working with Anger and Young People and Listening to Young People in School, Youth Work and Counselling, it grew out of a series of articles.

What makes Nick such a good writer is his pen-portraits. Sometimes only a paragraph long, they are beautifully written and help you empathise with the people he is describing.

You end up caring about characters such as the aggressive, swaggering Ledley, the disciplinarian deputy head Gareth and the gobby teenager Jade. Nick explains his own motivations; how he sometimes feels powerless to help a person, and what strategies he develops to overcome that. It’s very much teaching by example, because he believes professionals should be much more aware of their own motivations and impulses.

One of his themes is self-esteem. “I’m fed up with people talking about self-esteem as if we know what that means or as if you just take people on a few outward-bound courses or give them a bit of praise and, hey, their confidence is going to change,” he said, when we met up at his home in East Oxford. “People who work with young people know it isn’t as simple, so it was trying to get people to think about how a self is created in the first place, might get damaged and how it might get repaired a little.”

The first part of the book, A Developing Self, looks at six unidentified school-children who are seen individually and together in four group sessions. They come with a variety of issues, ranging from a girl who has fallen out with her best friend, to a boy whose father used to beat him and lock him out of the house. The teenagers are fictional archetypes, but based on real people and events. “You can’t write it just the way it happened for reasons of confidentiality,” Nick explained. “Also you’re telling a story and so you’re being incredibly editorial about what you’re choosing to say, because you’re also making teaching points.”

In the second part, labelled A Fragmented Self, he looks at how extreme traumatic events can seriously stunt a young person, telling the stories of young asylum seekers to illustrate each point. This chapter grew out of the work he undertook at Refugee Resource in Oxford, where he worked for three years. “They need people who remember who they are, who care about them, who are pleased to see them, who listen and remember their stories week after week, the same as English kids,” he said. “They want mothering. That sense of having your arms around them, metaphorically, and that it’s safe and that you’re listening.”

That idea of mothering is continued in an intriguing section where Nick details the impact of a classroom spat from the perspectives of the pupil involved, two teachers and the head. He is attempting to show the idea of school being both an external, physical place and an internalised concept within each person and it works very well.

At King Alfred’s School, Nick and his team of three volunteer counsellors provide therapeutic services for students and teachers. I ask what he enjoys about the job. “I think it is possible in a school to create a culture which in itself is therapeutic for people,” he explained. “If you can create a culture which isn’t just about having a counselling service, but teachers being more emotionally literate, more able to talk about their feelings, get older students working with younger students, then you get that more familial culture and that makes a difference. I enjoy it, but it’s not so much that I do, but that it just seems incredibly worth doing.”

Feeling Like Crap: Young People and the Meaning of Self-Esteem is published by JKP at £13.99.