Developing connections with young people

By Sarah, Youth Case Worker, NSW

Sarah is a youth case worker with a community support organisation and has extensive experiencing delivering youth, mental health and community engagement programs across NSW.  Step Together asked Sarah to share her insights for how support workers and community leaders can better connect with young people, particularly those who are going through a difficult time.

I have worked with young people for over 15 years, often with teenagers who have been through childhood trauma. Trauma can stem from a large range of issues – including a history of family violence, homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, and also geographic displacement.

When a young person comes to see me as their case worker, they often have a range of social or mental health problems and may be feeling depressed, isolated or hopeless, or be displaying violent or aggressive behaviour.

I’ve found the best way to help is to try to understand the young person and what they’ve been through. Sounds simple enough, but by addressing a person’s lack of connection, and reasons for feeling isolated and angry, we can help create the skills needed to combat violence and build individual and community resilience. It’s important to work through issues as early as possible, before they lead to ongoing physical or mental health problems, depression, or even an early interest in using violence for ideological, political or social change.

Below are some things I’ve learnt throughout my work that have helped me connect with young people who may need some help.

Try to understand the causes of angry or violent behaviour

Anger, or even violence, can be a means of seeking attention or connection, when people are feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. When a young person has experienced trauma, they can become desensitised, even re-enacting aggressive behaviour, or acting out violence when they play. Violent behaviour can also be a reaction to grief.

When we try to understand the causes of violent expression in a young person, we gain insight into how we can best support them. Start by helping a young person to understand where their anger is coming from, and giving them tools to manage it.

Provide stability

It is well known that young people respond to predictability and safety. Prior to meeting clients regularly, I tell them that I know that they may not have been feeling safe at home or at school, or wherever they may be experiencing issues (or may have acted out). I let them know our centre is a safe place for them, and that we are here for them at predictable times. I also try to be trauma aware, and not trigger any hurtful experiences from the past.

And a sense of control

Once you’ve established what support you can offer, it is really important to let young people have some choice. This can be difficult within organisational confines, but there are small yet effective things we can all do, such as asking a young person where they would like to sit, whether they would prefer the window open or closed, or if they need some time before you start chatting.

Allowing young people to make choices in sessions/activities can mean a lot if they feel they have very little control in their lives.

Ask questions and engage

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be intentional. As community workers (or even parents), we often fear asking the wrong questions and losing rapport. However, it’s important to trust that a young person will tell you if you make a mistake, or if they are not comfortable with the questions you ask. Chances are you will get it wrong a couple of times, but keep trying (and be creative).

Let them speak – even if it’s scary

Making space for young people to express themselves is crucial. When we allow young people to speak freely we are telling them that they matter.

I once received a phone call from a school saying a student was sharing stories of her past domestic trauma with the class, which was scary for other students. I started working closely with her, as I feared internalising these issues could lead to further trauma. My colleagues and I created a space for her, and a group of other young people, to tell their stories, and we gave each person as much time as they needed (it’s important you don’t seem rushed). We then hosted a creative workshop for the group. We shared stories verbally, but also through painting and drawing. We then turned their words and art into a book – something they could be proud of, and share with others.

Focus on strengths and interests

All young people have strengths, whether they recognise it or not. Fostering opportunities for them to work on what they enjoy may help in restoring meaning and purpose in their life. Try connecting to them through things they feel confident in, such as music, art or games (including online or digital – ask them to be your teacher).

One teenager I worked with would bring his headphones in every week, and only take one out while we talked, and he wasn’t talking much. I asked him what he was listening too, and he told me it was Tupac. We formed a connection by discussing the songs, and he slowly began telling me his own story, through our mutual connection to the music. I continued the conversation each week by bringing in music that he and I could both relate to.

Help create attachments and connections with other young people

It’s also important to provide opportunities for young people to connect with their peers. I recently took 30 young people, all who had experienced trauma in their past, to a three day camp. They knew each other from school and many of them didn’t get along. We acknowledged their differences, and brought them out in the open to lessen their power, but we did not dwell on them. Instead we focused on shared commonalities. A major connection was sport and music, so we spent the days learning from each other about these things. The kids took control of the playlist, brought out instruments, and spent many hours on the soccer field. Although it didn’t solve all their differences, the bus ride home was a lot different to the ride there.

These are just a few tips that may help in assisting young people to feel less hopeless, and more in control, but I’m sure you have your own ideas. Keep trying new ways to connect, and share your approaches with others – every young person is different, but the fact you are trying to help is often a large part of the solution.

For more information on how to support young people going through a tough time visit the resources below.

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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