Those who work with at-risk youth know that these children are confronting a range of challenges most young people couldn’t even imagine. But appreciating the difficulties kids in foster care and those who come from broken homes doesn’t necessarily translate to providing the help they need. Understanding aids and barriers to communicating with at-risk youth is the first step toward providing meaningful assistance. These “dos” can help with communication, while the following “don’ts” could stand as barriers.
Listening involves much more than just waiting for your turn to speak. Young people will shut down and refuse to open up to you if they don’t feel heard. Move away from any devices or books to give them your full attention and adopt open body language. Uncross your arms, look the young person in the eye, and avoid judgmental signals like sighs and eye-rolling (yes, they’ll do that to you, but just let it go). If you truly take the time to listen and provide the space and safe environment for a child or teen to tell you what’s on their mind, you might learn a lot you didn’t previously know about what’s bothering them.
Don’t Lecture Excessively
The quickest way to lose a young person’s attention is to start nagging, lecturing, or offering unsolicited advice. When a child or teenager has communicated their worries, mistakes, or actions to you, respond in a way that indicates you’ve heard what they said. Don’t immediately judge their thoughts and actions.
Sympathize and ask the young person how they feel about what they’ve shared with you. Ask what they think you could do to help. Rather than making “you should” statements (“you should study harder” or “you should stay away from that boy”), try using “I” statements to present suggestions, like “I know someone who tried this solution—what do you think?”
Do Provide Reasons for Rules
Schedules, limits on screen time, and restrictions on where youths can go are all rules based on good reasons. Share those reasons with the children subject to the rules. If at-risk kids believe you put rules in place because you care about them and want them to be safe, they’re much more likely to share information with you than if you simply stamp your foot and say, “because I said so.”
Don’t Disregard Young People’s Autonomy
The goal of raising a child is to enable that child to someday survive and thrive without you. Helping at-risk youth achieve independence, learn responsibility, and grow to become contributing members of society is a complex undertaking. You must offer them opportunities to make decisions and own the consequences of those choices.
Aids and barriers to communicating with at-risk youth present themselves in everyday situations. Choose your battles wisely. It’s one thing to insist that a young person be mindful of their safety and another to constantly nag them.
Teaching responsibility, compromise, and communication should start early. ARISE Foundation provides elementary life skills curriculum materials that help teachers, social workers, and counselors teach children positive self-advocacy, respectful communication, conflict resolution, and anger management skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.