They love you. They think you’re a great laugh. You’re the cool one, the laid back one. The one who can shoot the breeze with the best of them. As great as the relationship may seem though, we always have to ask the question of ourselves- is this where it begins and ends? Are we doing everything we can to help our teens, to help them get to the point of change, of progressing and growing as individuals?
Don’t get me wrong, good relationship building is at the core of what we do. Shooting the breeze, having a laugh, playing pool, kicking a ball about is where that starts, is where we appear human, is where the possibility of meaningful connection, of meaningful work, of meaningful exploration begins. None of the real work can start unless they think we’re alright, that we are interested in them, that we actually might care. No arguments, this part is vitally important.
The problem comes when this working relationship ‘story’ never progresses beyond the first paragraph. When we don’t get into depth of character, into fully exploring their story and how we can help them progress in their lives. When we don’t get anywhere near resolving the issues, the plots, the twists of their story before the final page with them is turned.
We are then their mate, nothing more, nothing less. They see us as pure equals, just like them. Our ability to help them change is seriously diminished as they do not see us as a source of caring expertise, as people with ideas and some life experiences that might help them out. We render ourselves fairly impotent.
Striking the right balance is not easy. For some teens, just the process of building a relationship of trust is a massive step in and of itself and so more time does need to be spent on helping them get comfortable in our company. But if we are to stand any real hope of helping them we need to always have our eyes on the goal, on what change we want to achieve. The getting comfortable part is the means to an end, not the end itself. Sometimes we may not achieve the goal in the time-frame we have available to us as we can’t rush it, but if we get to the end of our time with them and we never had at least our eyes on what we ultimately wanted to achieve with them (other than connection) then I would argue that we never stood a chance of getting there in the first place.
Sometimes we can underestimate their readiness to take the next step in the relationship, to start to tackle their issues. We can be afraid of taking the next step in case they turn away from us as they have so often done with others who have tried to help them.
In trying to strike the balance and in deciding when to take the next step we need to remind ourselves of the building blocks of relationship: what makes relationships, where real depth of connection and respect comes from and what holds those relationships together, even when the subject matter may be challenging and we have to face their behaviour head-on. Once we have grasped this then we avoid being merely the mate with no ‘medicine’ as we have the confidence to take the relationship further, tackle the issues and become the caring change-instigator that our teens so desperately need.
Relationship building blocks
The magnetism of care
If we really do care about our teens, it will show. If we have taken the time to get to know them as people rather than as a problem then they should feel human in our company. For many the sense, even if not rationally understood, that someone cares will keep them coming back for more, particularly when care has been in short supply in their lives. So when we do move on to explore their lives and their issues more closely it will seem less like an interrogation, a violation, and more like an information gathering exercise by someone who wants to understand and use that information to help them, rather than trip them up.
Listening promotes talking
They may well resist at first as they will still be operating on old information- that we are just one of those meddling workers like they’ve had before who are hell bent on fixing their problem without seeing them. In these situations, emphasising our listening role in the relationship can help to break down any barriers. Things like open-ended questions, letting the conversation at first go in the direction they want to take it. It’s easier to redirect something that is moving than something that is all gummed up, standing stock still. No judgements, no opinions from us at first, just rolling with it. (See Overcoming Resistance to Change: The Strongest Argument You Can Make Is Not To for more on Motivational Interviewing techniques.
Respect allows caring challenge
Once they feel listened to, our teens will feel respected and they will come to respect us in return. Then the possibility of respectful caring challenge comes into play. Rather than just listening, more challenging enquiries can be made. Questions along the line of, ‘Do you think that is appropriate?’. ‘How do you think that made them feel?’. We are not passing our own judgement but asking them to reflect for themselves.
If we ask them these questions straight off the bat, before the listening respect has been established they will chalk us up as judgmental clueless idiots who are just asking such questions to highlight how awful they are. Once respect has been established they will interpret those questions very differently, as genuine enquiries as to what they think, with no self-righteous judgmental overtones.
Teens aren’t stupid and will know that we are likely to have certain opinions but if we have set the tone that this is about them, their experiences, thoughts and feelings then they are less likely to go on the defensive and are more likely to share, more likely to really consider what we are asking them to reflect upon. Perception is everything.
Boundaries as tools of care
Sometimes however certain circumstances will necessitate us taking a more explicitly authoritative role. Like when a young person needs to be breached from their supervision/probation order and sent back to court for failing to show up for statutory appointments or for throwing a wobbly at us, or being temporarily banned from a group activity for behaving inappropriately.
All of the above are always a possibility even when we have been making major progress. And this is where many a worker becomes unstuck. They have made great strides in connecting with a young person and then inappropriate, unacceptable behaviour rears its head. And the worker decides that in light of progress made that they will effectively ignore it. They won’t breach them from their court order, they won’t temporarily ban them from the group, they won’t follow standard protocol. They’ll have a word with them and then effectively turn a blind eye; we wouldn’t want to wreck the relationship, the progress made would we?
But in doing this a valuable opportunity is wasted. If a good relationship has been built, progress made, then a learning opportunity about boundaries as boundaries of care has been lost.
For many teens, they have never had the security that comes from consistency, from knowing limits. When people who care create and enforce boundaries, then the child knows where they stand. They know if they do x, y will happen. If there is no consistency, they are left wondering what the response will be which is particularly unsettling if a parent or carer tends to have erratic mood swings. Or they will know that they can do what the hell they want because their parent or carer doesn’t actually care about what they do because they don’t really care about them. Either way, mental insecurity ensues.
Some teens will have had boundaries used against them as weapons of hate rather than as tools of care. They’ll have had a teacher who hates the ground they walk on, enforce some rule that isn’t their standard protocol and punish them just to inflict pain. Or they’ll have experienced a prison officer use unjustified violence against them for the slightest infraction, like talking in line when they are supposed to be silent.
So some teens have never known what it is to be cared about enough to have a boundary enforced. Others have learned that boundaries and rules are tools of oppression.
Boundaries exist in life, they are what orders society and stops it from descending into chaos; they keep people safe and feeling secure. So by not showing teens why boundaries exist, that this is the way society orders itself, and demonstrating how they are supposed to be used, we deny them the opportunity to learn how to get along in society and to progress as individuals. And we deny them the opportunity to know that we want to keep them safe, we want them to feel secure and that is because we care about them.
So if a boundary is enforced in a caring way, where time is taken to explain why we are doing it then the relationship does not have to suffer because we are still meeting their ultimate need for care.
In my personal experience, when I have had to breach teens from their court supervision/probation orders for various reasons including not showing up, mouthing off, threatening behaviour, I have seen growth and progress in the relationship, not deterioration. Once the immediate dust has settled I always take the time to explain how pleased I am with any progress that has been made, how I am enjoying getting to know them and why I am breaching them and sending them back to court (unacceptable behaviour = standard response = follow protocol). Nine times out of ten I get an apology, which I then include in my report for court, which obviously helps them no end and usually they are allowed to continue on their order. One time out of ten I’ll get an earful, a full on teen tantrum. But somewhere down the line, even if it’s after a stint in custody, they calm down and we’ll pick back up where we left off.
As long as I always behave with integrity, consistency and respect towards them, I always earn it back. They know I care about them and they know that I am fair and that is the knowledge that ultimately wins the day in their heads. They come to realise that if I had not breached them when others are breached for the same behaviour that I would actually be unfair, which would place doubt in their minds as to whether they could trust me, because they wouldn’t know which way I might swing in my response to their behaviour. My consistency of response keeps them feeling safe in the relationship, even when the potential physical consequences of incarceration may make them feel unsafe. They always know where they stand with me and that always keeps the relationship going.
And this consistency of care reaps dividends. It can cause kids to turn up to court to face their breach when usually they’d go on the run. It can cause them to pluck up the courage to speak to the magistrates and apologise, to ask them to let them continue on their orders because they feel they are making progress. Or it can cause the teen who serves some time for their misdemeanour to still turn up for their first appointment ‘on the out’.
The liability of placing too much emphasis on being liked
The alternative to this can be heard in youth court waiting rooms up and down the country where conversation often turns to discussing statutory workers- Youth Offending Team workers, social workers etc. I’ve anonymously sat in the middle of it on many an occasion and even when you control for teen bravado, the results are clear.
Young person: ‘He’s total safe. It’s great. We do f*** all. He knows not to mess man. He knows not to mess. He even lets me win pool most times. Total pussy’.
Young person speaking to another young person who is in court on breach: ‘Oh my days, she’s whippin’ you. You’re her bitch man! Missed two appointments? That’s how many I turn up to! I jus’ roll with my shit and rock up to YOT (Youth Offending Team) when I’m in the code (postcode). I’m a busy man. They run with my office hours. I’m tellin’ you, you need to get my worker man.’
Who do we want to be? The one who cares enough to take the tough decisions, or the one who doesn’t? The one that gets teens closer to change, or the one who doesn’t? The one who appears on the surface of it to be widely liked or the one that is deeply liked? The one that is seen as tough but fair and ultimately caring, or the one who is, quite frankly, a joke?
If we are just their mate, then we limit our potential as workers and we also limit their potential to learn, to grow, to change, to feel really cared for, to be in a stable, predictable relationship. And when it comes to the tough decisions, the boundary enforcements, we can be at risk of becoming the joke if we don’t make the right choice. When we don’t enforce the boundary it is then that we become complicit because we end up helping them continue in their negative behaviour and avoiding addressing their issues. We are not helping, we are hindering.
So we need to consider each and every day, could anyone say of us, ‘I can do what the f*** I like with this one.’ If so, maybe we need to consider if we are too much of a mate and not enough of a helper. Mates are widely available, real helpers are in short supply. I know which one I’d rather be, and I know which one they’d deep down rather we were too.