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3 APRIL 1999
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The process of engaging with young people

Brian Gannon

We engage with children and young people at risk in order to get some sort of relationship going. We feel that we need to get a relationship going with some urgency because this will play a role in helping the youngster over some preoccupying circumstance or stumbling block which is holding up his or her ongoing development.

Mostly we want to establish the relationship in order to “reach” the young person. We may have established that some form of help or intervention is needed, but for this to happen we must get nearer.

But kids are very suspicious of the “smiling dentist” approach. “you’re trying to get close to me for something you want to happen.” (When children pretend to like adults when they want something, we call that behaviour “manipulative”.)

With most youngsters at risk, there are two stages to establishing the personal relationship.

1. They often come to trust the environment before they trust individuals. It is the place that young people first get a feel for, and this place includes the “geography”, what happens there, the operating style, and the staff team. Within any programme there is always a “climate” which conveys (or fails to convey) a general sense of reliability and trustworthiness. There must be enough in this environment that is familiar mixed with enough that offers some hope of comfort or change. Initially it needs to invite, to welcome and to offer; it must be careful not to recruit, proselytise and promise.

This “place” must know that it is a transitional way-station. The kids have to walk into it off the street, as it were. They have to cross over into this place from their own place, their own lives. From here they should be able to move comfortably back into their own lives – or on to another stage in the helping process.

Most youngsters will come into a programme as a result of repeatedly hurtful relationships, with the generalised feeling that people don’t care. So it is usually with people (in the plural) that we must begin. The staff team should know that their general relationship with the child is a necessary stage towards the particular relationship which the child may need – perhaps with one of them or perhaps with someone else.

This emphasises the importance of every team member and the healthy functioning of the whole team. It will take just one staff member who is impatient, insensitive, competitive, punitive to confirm for the child that “people don’t care” – and thus wreck our whole initiative. I, as a member of the team, must know that my personal responsiveness, respect, integrity and hopefulness towards the child are crucial to all of my team colleagues in this process of engaging.

And there is an important plus: very many youngsters, when they experience this reasonable environment, this adult considerateness, this general encouragement and support, will come to believe that people do care, and this alone will be enough for them to return to their own place with new hope and trust. We engaged as a team, and achieved as much as we could have hoped.

2. The relationship itself is often as powerful as the intervention we might have wanted to use the relationship for. From the group trust which may develop between the children and adults in a Child and Youth Care programme, there will emerge individual contacts and connections. Inevitably, when we spend regular times together, do certain tasks and activities together, and come to depend on one another and anticipate each others' reactions, deeper mutual attachments occur. For the youngster, a certain individual adult (or adults) will emerge from the staff matrix as being more familiar, significant and reliable.

Two things can happen at this stage. The first of these is the hazardous process of testing out. In the past, significant adults (often a succession of adults) in the child's life have not proved to be committed and trustworthy when it came to the crunch. Each time around the youth will have been less and less reassured or convinced by adult relationships. By the time you and I meet him, he will want to “test the bridge” quite severely before risking himself. He will likely precipitate a series of “crunches” which essentially test out the question “Will this person still be there for me even if I ...?” or “Is there a point beyond which this adult will reject me just like all the others?”

The second event will be a relaxation into a more comfortable affinity where engaging becomes less tentative, more natural and spontaneous, and a relatively role-free friendship develops. Within this relationship the youngster feels acknowledged, valued and significant. Neither the young person nor the adult has anything to prove, chips are removed from shoulders and personal trust and sharing are enhanced.

And there is an important plus: very many youngsters, when they experience this meaningful bond and acceptance, come to renounce their former mistrust and negative beliefs about themselves and other people, and this alone will be enough for them to return to their own lives with new confidence and security. In most cases the planned “intervention” is unnecessary. The young person has experienced in real life that which he yearned for. We engaged as an individual, and achieved as much as we could have hoped.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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