Teenagers in care often present a particular challenge, and many adults struggle to connect with them. But why? In this blog post, founder of The Care Leaders and Lived Experience Leader, Luke Rodgers, together with Lived Experience Leader, Karylle Phillips, and the founder of Madlug, Dave Linton, discuss the reasons behind this and explore the ways in which adults can engage with young people – particularly those who are care-experienced – to improve communication and build stronger relationships.
Why do we view teenagers differently?
For Karylle, the reason this topic is so important – especially for care-experienced young people – is that firstly, teenagers are harder to foster, and secondly, that when we think about child development, we recognise things such as attachment and trauma and previous history before coming into care.
“We think about those things and we tend to picture children under 10,” says Karylle. “We feel sorry for them and we want to do all these things. Yet, we take this same child with all this history and early childhood trauma, and now they’re 14, 15, and all of a sudden, they’re not so cute. They talk back, and for whatever reason, we forget they have been through all of this. If anything, now at 14, 15, the risks are heightened.
“They’re now engaging in risk-taking behaviour and they’re doing things that for us as adults, triggers something within us. We want to protect them, but equally, we just want them to do what we’re telling them to do. It’s something I see across all sectors – be it in education, social work, etc.
“I suppose what I really wanted us to focus on was what is it about teenagers that triggers adults? But more importantly, how can we get care-experienced young people to talk? That’s ultimately what we want, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s healthy that young people challenge everything we’re saying. Instead of seeing it as an educational point, we see it as disobedience and disrespect. So my question is to you guys, how to we get teenagers to talk back to us?”
Teenagers and their emotions
Luke says the first question to ask is ‘what are we getting them to talk about?’ If we’re asking hormonal teenagers to talk about their emotions, it’s important to remember how big their emotions are anyway. This is the case even more so with care-experienced young people who have had a history where their emotions have not been regulated or co-regulated with someone else.
Endearing children vs terrible teens
“In terms of the separation between what we call the ‘endearing children’ and the ‘terrible teens’, I think we go through this process which is when children in care are below the age of 13, we say ‘oh maybe the reason you’re behaving like this is because of x, y, or z’,” says Luke. “We try to get them to understand. We say ‘oh maybe because of difficult experiences, there are big feelings and you’re behaving this way’. But then what happens is the teenager turns that round in our face and they say ‘well the reason I behave like that miss is because I was knocked about as a kid, and you’re kind of like ‘oh’. What do you do with that when a teenager throws that in your face?
“As an endearing child in care, we’ve been trying to get them to create a connection between their behaviour and experience. As a teenager, they go ‘well the reason why I hit little Timmy on the head is because I’ve been hit on the head’. It’s difficult to respond to that, so often we just don’t.”
Techniques to better communicate with teenagers
“A really simple technique you can use is to reply “oh, I wasn’t aware of that. Because you’ve mentioned it, I want to make sure you’re supported’. You either give them support [yourself] or [you find] them support.
“If a teenager has used that to trigger you, if you then respond and say ‘oh that sounds like a difficult experience, I wasn’t aware of that, I’m going to find you support’ now you’re basically saying because of what you said to me, I’m going to get you support where you can talk about that emotional thing.”
Separating behaviour and emotion
“The next thing you do is to explain to them that behaving in that way is completely unacceptable. You say ‘we’re going to deal with those issues separately. I’m going to get you support for that but behaving like that is not okay. Also, the fact that you know you do it because of that means that you can do something about it. If you didn’t know I could have given you a break but the fact that you do know means you’re controlling your behaviour.’ You can really flip it.
“I think you have to separate behaviour and emotion with teenagers, and you’ve got to find a technique to do it. You’ve got to deal with the meaning or the emotion and with the behaviour and then you’ve got to separate them.”
The bottom line: what’s your agenda?
“I’m one of the strange people that actually prefer teenagers over children,” says Dave. “It’s maybe a little bit different when you become a parent of teenagers, but [when I was a youth worker], I loved working with teenagers. I think it comes down to ‘what’s your agenda?’
“Young people are smart. There was a study done several years ago called ‘Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers’ and they talked about how culture sends teenagers to an underground, and it’s an extended adolescence. So the underground world is peer-influenced and it’s [all about how you] ‘don’t trust adults’. The peer message was that your parents want to be seen as being a great carer, your teacher wants to be seeing as doing a great job, etc.
“At Madlug, do I really care about all that stuff? No. I care about the young person I’m sitting beside. When I go to National House Project or The Care Leavers National Movement and sit with their young people around a table, what’s my agenda? Is it to be the business guy, the big brand guy, or do I want to just be sitting down listening, showing empathy and compassion and just being real? I think that’s the part that I would say to every adult – ‘how [do] we connect? And I think that’s even more important with care-experienced young people. However, what’s needed more is a place where they have that support and that love and compassion and genuineness.”
Karylle agrees that being mindful of our agenda is crucial. She recalls speaking to a social worker as a 15-year-old in care and struggling to regulate her emotions. “I’m still the seven-year-old who had witnessed domestic abuse and I’m still the seven-year-old who had over 15 different foster placements,” she says. “I’m still the seven-year-old who has been abandoned and rejected. I am still that person but now I’m 15. So now I’ve got more experience pinpointing who’s communication can I trust? Pinpointing who makes the decisions here? I’m in a constant state of survival and so what I haven’t learnt yet is to express my emotions.”
Looking beyond the behaviour
Chatting with that social worker, Karylle recalls being told by her social worker that she wouldn’t be getting her payslip on time. Karylle became filled with emotion and felt she had no control over the situation so swore at the social worker.
“Do you know what they turned around and said? If you’re going to talk to me like that, I’m going to hang up the phone. At that point is when I feel so many more adults and practitioners should really take a step back and recognise that one, this isn’t personal, and two, what was your agenda here in the first place?
“Was it just to deliver bad news? Because if you were aware of that, then you would be prepared for my reaction. Hanging up the phone doesn’t solve anything, and now I’ve just found another person to add to the long list of people who don’t know how to communicate. Now, every time we talk, it’s just [swearing a lot] because I need to gain back that control. You’ve told me what you don’t like me doing so now I’m gonna do it every single time. You hurt me, so I’ll hurt you. I don’t have any control over your life but I have some control now that you’ve shown me how it makes you feel so I’ll do that in every reaction.”
“What you’re communicating is going beyond the behaviour and communicating what’s going on for the young person,” says Luke. “Dave, you’re saying, just be real. And I think they kind of go side by side.
Nurturists vs behaviourists
Luke says that when children with a social worker are triggered, they can’t regular their emotions. They need some help doing that. “Teachers, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish,” he says. “This kind of stuff doesn’t come up in general teacher training. The teacher will usually say ‘alright cool, let’s not see a young person as being challenging – let’s see them as being emotionally overwhelmed’. But how do I do that when this is happening? Teachers don’t feel they have the training to do it. I think schools need to look at things slightly differently.
“There are two schools of thought – there are the nurturists and the behaviourists. I always explain the nurturists as Peter Pan (everything’s lovely) and the behaviourists like Ms Trunchable who will lock you in a coffin with spikes on it at any moment. The behaviourists believe order and routine and being strict will enable a young person to grow into being a meaningful adult, and the nurturists say ‘let’s talk about your feelings’. I think people are taught one or the other, and I think actually, we need both.
“So in your scenario, Karylle, the teacher might say ‘well they swore at me, that’s against our behavioural management policy. We need to get rid of them’. But from my perspective, we need to do something else. We need to ask ourselves ‘how is this young person emotionally overwhelmed?’ Again, using this example, Karylle, ‘I can see how something difficult is going on for you right now but I want to get you support for that but speaking to me in this way is completely unacceptable and we’ll deal with that separately’. This all comes back to consistency.”
Validation is key
Karylle says one of the most important things she has learned working in further education is not to forget when you’re speaking to a teenager. “Yes, we have to be professional in these settings, but if a young person openly says to me ‘this is fucking shit’, rather than saying ‘no swearing in my office please’, I just go ‘yeah it is a bit shit isn’t it. What do you want to do about it?’ Validation is key.
“Had that social worker said to me ‘you know what Karylle, I get it. I’m going to go back to my manager and speak to her, [things would have been different]. But it was a lack of validation for me, and it was the idea that how I respond to it almost had an impact on the outcome. [I would then also] sit and worry thinking ‘oh god, am I supposed to grovel and apologise? She might not help me now’. It’s such an abusive situation to be in, especially when you’re a young person who isn’t necessarily equipped with the knowledge of how to respond.
“Instead, everything you do and every which way you respond is considered negative and inappropriate. They could also say ‘if I could do something else I would. Do you think there’s something else I could do that I haven’t done? I’m sorry this is happening, I’ll get back to you.’ It might not change the swearing but it would have left the conversation on a very different tone.
“Thinking about a particular group of young people where practitioners are struggling or adults are struggling, how do we engage with that group? How do we get them to talk to us?”
Dave believes a key thing is being curious.“I think one of the problems is we’re not teaching people how to ask good questions,” he says. “If you’re really about the young person, then you’re interested, so it’s natural.”
Karylle agrees. “If you’re genuinely curious and your agenda is to build a relationship, regardless of how much time you have, what your role is, then naturally you start forming good questions,” she says.
“Good questions then bring great responses,” says Dave. “So you end up starting to go deeper. But it doesn’t happen straight away. Some of my best youth work was five years in when I really got to know young people on a different level.
“I didn’t give up. My agenda was ‘what did that young person need?’ Just playing PlayStation talking rubbish may have been what they needed [in one moment] but [another time, it] may have been [a conversation about struggling at school].
“Whenever we’re working with young people, there’s often a risk that we try to stop them or protect them from doing what we have done. We operate out of our own traumas, and everyone carries trauma to some degree.”
Luke raises the point that as adults, we expect children in care and care-experienced young people to come to us and do what we want them to do, but when it’s the other way around, we are unwilling to enter a more fluid space. “I find using humour is a really [good approach to take] with young people. If you’re asking young people questions and they’re not answering, you can fall into a space of humour.
“When I worked in London setting up an edge of care programme, I had to do outreach and go to people’s houses, and it was the middle of summer. The [people working there said kids didn’t answer their doors] and I asked ‘when you turn up you knock on the door and they don’t answer, what are you doing?’ They said ‘oh I’d just go back to the office’.
“So I went to this kid’s house knocking on the door and saying through the letterbox saying ‘dude it’s so hot outside. Can you please just bring me a glass of water? I can see you in there. I’m so warm out here’. Just letting go a little bit.
“The kid opened the door and we played on PlayStation together. I end up helping his mum put up something in her kitchen that stops flies getting in from outside. You’ve just got to loosen up a bit and have some humour.”
How to talk to teenagers so they talk back to you
- Ask yourself ‘what is my agenda?’ In that space when a young person disagrees with you or challenges you, how do you respond to that? Ask yourself ‘what is my agenda in this conversation?’
- Be curious. Have an authentic relationship and take away that awkwardness. Just go with it.
- Be mindful of the language you use. If you’re telling your colleagues that young people ‘aren’t engaging’, think about what it is that you’re doing. You knocked on the door but did you try anything else? Or did you just cut them loose at that point and say ‘they’re not engaging’? They’re not engaging with your approach, so try something else.
- Don’t try to be cool. You’re probably not and that’s okay.
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