by Ryan Wise
Working with adolescents is an area of practice which I thoroughly enjoy but where I can feel constrained. I believe there is a different dynamic to working with adolescents compared to working with younger children and families, one could argue that it requires a different expertise or skillset.
Working with adolescents is a grey area in the sense it doesn’t fit nicely into causal, linear systems and laws we follow, which are often geared towards younger children and families. An action and plan-based approach can be more productive in keeping younger children safe.
Behaviours of younger children are more predictable and can be easily influenced and controlled, but within the context of working with adolescents, unpredictability and uncertainty needs to be embraced due to various influences at play for adolescents like identity, education, employment, sexuality, gender, and social networks. Perhaps the need for optimistic realism and attitude to working with adolescents is where the focus needs to be.
I have learned that it is important to work with what an adolescent prioritises or privileges as their goal or ambition. The autonomy of adolescents needs to be accepted and respected as well as an element of a risk.
There needs to be a sense of realism to the presence of risky behaviour. One cannot provide the miracle solution of removing risk and providing safety, to think this in general in social work is naive but more so in working with adolescents.
There is a need for persistence and time when working with adolescents which might not always apply to child protection, which is where the child protection approach to risk can often feel uncomfortable because of time restraints. Adolescents have a greater sense of agency due to their independence and age; practitioners are able to directly consider change and risk with adolescents directly through conversation and direct work.
I have found young people rightly often don’t concern themselves about timescales social workers work under; if we introduced more flexibility with timescales would this allow creative, relationship-based practice?
This often leads me to think about support workers working with adolescents for partners like the NSPCC, Barnados or the Children’s Society.
I have noticed that when prevalent issues such as substance use, child sexual exploitation through social media, missing episodes, criminality, gang association affecting teenagers are present, there is a tendency to have colleagues from said organisations involved.
Role of the social worker
This is not a bad thing but leads me to think about what the role of the social worker is. This is a bigger conversation about what are we as social workers; should we be signposting or referring out? Everyone has different opinions to what social workers should be doing and I think this is a debate which continues to simmer.
The reality is that we don’t currently have the time or flexibility to invest in relationships with adolescents. But then the question is if an adolescent is open to us, what are we doing then? What are we doing that is useful?
Does this risk a knowledge gap developing whereby local authority social workers have no ability to work with teenagers and it all becomes about external help? This is the reality of where we are heading while we are swamped and unable to do vital work.
If my argument is that the system may not work for adolescents in some cases; is perpetuating the same narrative of subscribing to system procedures counterproductive when working with adolescents?
There are often different opinions on child protection processes for adolescents. Some authorities have a blanket approach – regardless of age – that the recognition of significant harm is key. Some are more aware of how process can alienate and use – what I would interpret as – a flexible approach and may use child in need planning as a less interventionist approach.
I would suggest often the more procedural elements to child protection don’t fit with adolescents such as timescales, core groups and conferences. In my experience, the bureaucracy of child protection doesn’t mix well with adolescents, as a part of the process is fitting procedures around the day-to-day life of adolescents.
It is sometimes useful to recognise level of risk in a multi-agency context as it can orientate thinking. Perhaps then the label of child protection can be of value but then how work goes on from this point needs to be more flexible and creative.
The need for creativity, time and flexibility I don’t think is necessarily new to the profession, on the contrary I think it is probably widely recognised and some local authorities are adapting. Some are changing how they proceed with conferences and reviews; young people are increasingly being given the choice to choose where, when, who attends and how meetings are conducted.
Investing in relationships
I think it is essential that time be freed up to invest in relationships, because only through trust may come change.
I have personally found the pressure of seeing a 15-year-old child for child protection visit timescales highly stressful and my thoughts were fixed in being compliant rather than being useful. I feel there can be a common theme of adolescents having low self esteem and low confidence, and I wonder if the current child protection system is able to support working through this?
A colleague told me about working under child in need allowed for flexibility and creativity; she also recognised the qualities of a supportive multi-agency team where she felt supported as the lead professional to try an intervention.
My colleague implemented externalizing conversations as part of narrative therapy where young people were able to consider themselves free from labels, stereotypes and stories which freed themselves to consider themselves differently.
I wonder if the wider problem is how adolescents and young people are seen. We live in an unequal, divided society. The expectations we have of young people seem to be so high let alone expectations for young people who work with children’s services who tend to face even more challenges. I consider myself to be fortunate and privileged, I have had a good education, stability and support.
However, I don’t recall “growing up” and feeling some sense of confidence until my mid twenties. There are so many influences on young people and so many challenges, be it employment, finance, education or identity for example.
The pressure to be the best is such a strong narrative – is it really a shock that as a society we are witnessing young people continues to struggle with their mental health at such an alarming rate?
I think it can be useful to look more deeply at skilful approaches with children who are looked after. Ideas of advocacy and respect and power are common threads. I remember hearing from Kratos as part of my training.
Kratos are a group of children and young people in care and care leavers working with Enfield council to get the voices of others in care heard. It was inspiring to see how young people were empowered and confident in expressing themselves.
Not only do we have to rethink our systems, we need to think our political agenda, maybe social work is a good start. Once a privileged vocation, maybe we take this back, we disrupt the wider system and show the need for a different approach. This can start with finding a response to that first question: does the current approach of working with adolescents really have the desired effect?
Ryan Wise is an advanced social work practitioner in children’s services. He tweets @ryanwise18.