Gaining the trust of teenage members of a family in crisis can be testing for social workers. Molly Garboden looks at how professionals can build support for effective outcomes
For a social worker, entering a family’s life at a crisis point, building a rapport with teenage members of the household is an immense task, and a crucial one.
Moreover, natural human reactions can increase the risk for these young people. A recent report from the Children’s Society claims social workers consider teenagers more resilient and able to remove themselves from abusive situations. This optimism, mixed with a teenagers’ ability to disengage with, or even undermine, professionals, means many are left to fend for themselves too much, the report states.
Three serious case reviews in Wales this year, all dealing with the suicides of teenagers, highlighted the need to train social workers to work more effectively with adolescents. The reviews also pointed out that teens increased use of drugs and binge drinking were increasingly making them the most vulnerable group of children in terms of preventable deaths.
Despite the difficulties, developing a relationship with teenagers is the key to any successful outcome for them, and sometimes that might mean taking a step back according to Vanessa Rogers, youth work consultant, author and trainer.
“Social workers could learn a lot from youth workers, who tend to focus a lot on telling young people they are there to enable them to do something themselves. I don’t doubt for a minute that social workers would want to engage with teenagers better – it’s really down to the circumstances in which they’re working. Young people are often under the impression with social workers that something is being done to them, so it’s that much harder for social workers to get through the door.”
Joyce Moseley, chief executive of the charity Catch-22, a charity which works with teenagers in difficulties, agrees.
“Many teenagers who come into contact with social workers do so during a crisis, so the social worker is left to handle the immediate situation, whether that’s an extreme family issue or the teenager lashing out in various ways. That leaves no time to develop a meaningful relationship with the young person.”
Moseley emphasises that supporting teenagers is a very different process from handling cases concerning small children.
“Teenagers are old enough to have perceptions of what social workers are about and often they don’t want to be taken into care, so they might not be saying what’s really happening,” she points out. “It’s often a complex set of feelings because they’re feeling this resistance on the one hand, but on the other they want their problems solved.”
Another important message to remember is that the actual age of a young person may not necessariliy equal their emotional maturity
“While technically, a 14-year-old is still a child, the case usually is that they don’t feel like one, especially if they have reason to come into contact with social workers,” says Rogers. “Some of the young people social workers encounter haven’t felt like children for years – they’ve often been through a lot, whether that’s taking care of parents, being scared that they’re pregnant, committing crimes in some cases. It’s really important to look at that young person as a young adult.”
Others argue, however, that social workers must keep in mind the impact difficult experiences may have had on these young people’s development and that in fact, they may be emotionally less mature than their age and experience might imply.
“By going through the young person’s history, the social worker can tell what stage the young person is currently going through emotionally, psychologically, regardless of age or appearance,” says Jonathan Stanley, head of the National Children’s Bureau’s Residential Child Care Service. “That insight can explain a lot about a young person’s actions. You have to adapt your social work styles according to each child, their circumstances and their life stage.”
Stanley also emphasises the need for genuine warmth when handling cases with teenagers. While members of this age group may strive to make themselves appear in less need of sympathy, Stanley says social workers do not have a chance at creating a meaningful connection without an element of affection.
“Yes social workers have a legal responsibility, but they have a parenting responsibility as well,” he says. “It might be a corporate parenting role, but it is parenting. Therefore you have to have authentic warmth to be that parent that this young person needs in order to get them to communicate with you. It’s a matter of theory, practice and skill.”
Rogers points out that social workers need to work particularly hard with this age group to overcome their prejudice.
“Social workers have to keep in mind that these teenagers might have had very bad experiences with authority figures in the past and many of them have issues with adults in their lives letting them down,” she says. “Then along comes the social worker and the young person is supposed to trust them and let them into their lives, which seems crazy to the young person. Social workers need to establish what makes them different and how they can clarify that role in this young person’s life.”
On working with teens
Show consideration: “Young people are much more self-conscious than younger children and social workers need to be considerate of this fact. For instance when a young person has contact with their parents, they would really make an effort because it’s a big deal to them. They want to look good for their parents and would choose what they wore really carefully. Some young people have said their social worker would show up in an old, ripped pair of jeans and deflate them and this experience entirely. No one’s saying social work should be ruled by the fashion police, but practitioners really need to think about the context of the situation and what it might mean to the young person. Dressing accordingly shows a level of consideration and respect that will be hugely appreciated by the young person.”
Vanessa Rogers, youth work consultant, author and trainer
Build relationship: “You need to engage the young person so they feel comfortable with you. You need to do things with them – cook, go out for a day trip. It’s not about writing them appointment letters and seeing them in offices. That’s what young people tell us is too often the case. Young people say the most important things in more relaxed situations that aren’t focusing on the problem. The problem is of course that social workers often don’t have the time for that level of contact. I don’t doubt for a minute that social workers would want to engage with teenagers better. It’s really down to the circumstances in which they’re working. Working in better partnership with people in youth services or school would help – social workers need to be in places where young people go naturally. That’s how they’re going to get to the bottom of any real issues.”
Joyce Moseley, chief executive of the charity Catch-22
Understand history: “One of the things we’ve forgotten to remember is Erikson’s stages of development. It’s gone out of fashion, I know, but it’s important for social workers to go right back to look at this – from the pregnancy to the birth, the early parenting and learning to walk and talk. By going through the young person’s history like this, the social worker can tell what stage the young person is currently going through. For looked after children, for instance, whose development may have been affected by their life experiences, they may be at a different stage of development than their age or appearance would indicate. It’s about getting people to understand that the young person you’re seeing is not necessarily the child inside.”
Jonathan Stanley, head of the NCB’s Residential Child Care service
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This article is published in the 23 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading When the teenage barriers go up