Under control?

Working with young people is rewarding but demanding.
Occasionally such work can be dangerous for workers, others or to
the young people themselves. How can such dangers be

First, it is important that workers and volunteers know precisely
what the agency policies are regarding violence at work. The old
attitude of “it’s a part of the job” must be laid to rest and in an
attempt to achieve this many agencies are now focussing on the zero
tolerance approach regarding violence to staff. Notices proclaiming
“abusive language or behaviour will not be tolerated” are now
appearing in all sorts of establishments.

Such a sign gives a clear message to everyone and is supportive to
both staff and non-abusive service users. However, a sign on its
own does little to change the level of aggression experienced by
staff, and policy documents now contain examples of sanctions,
which can be used to help give the sign some credibility.

Also, many organisations that work with young people are now
helping clients to manage their anger and frustration. These
include anger management programmes, direct work techniques,
talking/counselling, buddy systems and physical activities.

Secondly, training staff in how to avoid triggering aggressive
behaviour and how to manage it when it does occur is essential, as
Mark’s case demonstrates.

At the age of sixteen, Mark was living a hostel with four others
all of whom exhibited violent behaviour. His room was his
sanctuary, his private space where hostel staff had agreed only he
and those he chose would enter.

One night Mark had been drinking and returned to the hostel at
11pm. Earlier in the evening he had a violent argument with his
girlfriend. She had called to the hostel before his return and
persuaded one of the workers to allow her to remove personal items
from Mark’s room. Mark returned and upon finding out what had
transpired in frustration lashed out at the worker on duty and was

It is evident that with good training, this could have been
avoided. Training can help staff work through situations before
they occur. Yet social care staff, youth justice and youth workers
often do not learn how to manage aggression as part of their formal
professional training.

Clear policies on the service provided to young people under the
influence of drugs or alcohol can help. This allows staff to be
clear about boundaries, and to feel confident in how they should
respond. In some hostels young people returning under the influence
of drink or drugs would not be allowed entry. This may appear
extreme, but such rules can help young people take responsibility
for their behaviour, and improve self-esteem as well as reducing
risks for staff and other young people.

Another contentious question for many organisations is whether and
at what stage to involve the police when young people become
threatening or aggressive. Many individuals working with young
people consider calling the police to be unnecessary and
undesirable (see panel).

Where organisations have taken considered action on minimising
aggression and protecting staff, working with young people remains
both stimulating and rewarding – and not dangerous.

Ray Braithwaite is the author of Managing Aggression
(Routledge, 2002).

Call the police?

Arguments in favour

  • Reinforces the message that violence is unacceptable.
  • Protects service users and empowersvictims.
  • Re-enforces the concept that young people have the same rights
    as everyone else.
  • Protects staff from criticism.

Arguments against

  • It creates a drama.
  • It destroys trust between the young person and the worker.
    ¥ Issues can be dealt with internally.   

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