‘We need to recognise the vulnerability’
Referred to me aged 10 due to his antisocial behaviour, ‘Bob’ was frequently taken home by the police. He displayed aggression and destroyed his family home. During a one-to-one session we discussed how his actions could change his future. Then I explained that my contract was coming to an end… it was maternity cover. Bob approached me and hugged me. He asked me to stay. I felt mixed emotions; happiness that there was hope for him, and the guilt of having to leave.
When you hear reports of children throwing chairs, assaulting teachers in classrooms, perhaps you experience a mixture of emotions too. You may blame a lack of discipline in the child’s home life. Before I worked with vulnerable young people, I know I did. After a Youth and Community Work degree, a masters degree in Psychology and working alongside those young people, my opinions have changed. I have learnt to break down barriers and indirectly allow the young person to direct the level and style of engagement. Working with Bob, I hadn’t been disciplinarian or authoritarian, yet I had been able to foster respect between Bob and myself.
The work takes patience though. It’s filled with moments of elation when Bob demonstrated positive actions and communication, only to be followed by disappointment when he slipped back into his more familiar negative role. The journey with Bob and other young people like him is always similar, but the question remains: what does it take to engage young people who come across as hostile?
Breaking down the barriers
Initially, Bob didn’t understand my positive, welcoming and supportive approach. Given his family and community environment, how could he? My first attempts at engagement were met with insults, a bravado, preventing Bob from lowering his barriers. I needed to appreciate and adapt to the familiar, cultural and symbolic communication Bob uses to relate.
I also had to realise that those comments were not personal, not even really intended. It’s habitual, created through fear in how Bob relates to other people, particularly those who represent an authoritative identity. I needed to connect with Bob by minimising the authoritarian principle and enhancing the person-centred approach. What does the world look like through Bob’s eyes? What is the essence of Bob? Once I have some handle on this, I can see that Bob and young people like him are as vulnerable as any young person, and their relationship with me is probably all the more strong because that alliance has been hard won.
This is not to say that it’s all about Bob’s barriers. When working with challenging and marginalised young people, I have found it surprising that the focus is mainly at the individual level, with little attention towards societal barriers that stand in the way of people like Bob becoming successful. Societal norms and stigma pushes certain young people to the periphery of society. Success here doesn’t necessarily mean becoming wealthy or having a top career: success for Bob is to have the opportunity to follow his passions and interests, which can be overlooked by others.
My current focus is working with young people between the ages of 16 and 17 who do not engage in any form of education or employment. It’s an extension of my time working with Bob. If he doesn’t have the opportunity to engage in positive activities he may well become increasingly isolated and marginalised.
The term used for such young people is NEET – not in employment, education or training. I’m not comfortable with such labels. They’re negative, and instantly isolate young people from the rest of society, suggesting they lack social engagement in some way. Yet I can see how specific funding streams and targeted youth intervention can require such labels, to identify the young people that need the support.
I do wonder, though, whether social engagement would be better served by an equal focus on policy and social perception. So my support for those young people is multifaceted. I become an advocate for them, seeking to open opportunities to progress, to narrow the inequality of opportunity. I work towards building relationships with colleges and further training providers that offer work experience. Unfortunately, the young people I represent can be scarred by their environment and community… sometimes during the enrolment process, when the young person provides their address, I witness a sense of judgement from staff who are fully aware of the problems inherent within that community. Again, their identity becomes embedded amongst this negativity. It’s my job to bring to the fore the young person’s qualities and idiosyncratic characteristics, in order to enhance their identity.
With most young people, a different identity emerges. They demonstrate that they want to work towards more positive outcomes. Of course they also express their boredom, but to my eyes this is usually down to their current situation. They need to gain more autonomy by becoming economically active. I don’t buy the social perception of marginalised young people, where reports suggest that economic inactivity is a result of laziness, dependence on benefits. Recent austerity has resulted in services being cut and a lack of amenities being available compared with their more affluent counterparts.
The challenge in working towards positive outcomes for these young people involves the gap between positive and supportive engagement, compared with being back within their family and community. All our good work can be overshadowed, through more time being spent in those other environments. Work with young people can become a Sisyphean process, pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll back down. They can be so engrained within their environment. It might be a monumental task for them to transition towards a more fulfilling future.
Recognise the vulnerability
Of those young people I have engaged, their negative actions have many causes. But there have always been deeper psychological and developmental implications. At the time of working with Bob, he demonstrated characteristics that would predict a path towards becoming NEET. There are a variety of reasons why a young person would become NEET such as exclusion and truancy which can lead to antisocial behaviour and offending. Perhaps people then judge those young people based on their actions, and there is little attempt to look at the bigger picture.
We need to recognise the vulnerability in Bob and young people like him; to see past the barriers they develop to protect themselves. Addressing such behaviour also requires more complex interventions, rather than the need for more discipline. I have witnessed the effects of authoritative characteristics within families and the destructive results that this approach to communication can foster. The introduction of routine, and more positive family interaction, can be far more effective.
In summary, young people with social and emotional characteristics who are challenged by those in authority may react with outbursts. Social norms can influence the way we perceive those outbursts. Actually working with these young people can change your own norms. When I hear of a young person demonstrating negative characteristics now, I immediately wonder what the underpinning factors are rather than instantly placing judgement on them. I hope you may do the same.
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