OPINION: Curious how to connect with teenagers & get positive outcomes? Dharug man Peter Downie shares his top tips to heal, repair and engage again.
I have been so lucky in my work. It’s where I have laughed a lot, cried a lot but most importantly learned an immense amount about trauma while managing a youth refuge over the last 8 years. I love my job.
I work at Coast Shelter on the Central Coast of NSW, an awesome organisation with the goal of accommodating homeless and disadvantaged kids. We help to move them into stable, comfortable and safe accomodation where they can be happy; that is success to us.
The refuge is where I met Mark, an incredible young man who features in the Living Black episode “Taken”, where young people describe life in the out-of-home-care system after being removed from their families.
When Mark walked in the door of the refuge as a homeless teenager, he hardly spoke at all. Today Mark is thriving. He works, he’s studying at TAFE and recently got his learners permit to drive a car. Hearing of Mark’s achievements honestly makes my day.
Trauma responsive care can sound complex however being in that environment full-time has taught me, there’s no direct pathway to engage with young people. When I started as a youth worker I made mistakes, the young people taught me how to help them succeed.
Here are my top tips for building a solid, respectful relationship with young people.
Don’t keep repeating yourself.
This isn’t about you, it’s all about them. Don’t keep asking them to do something if it causes conflict.
Tune into the young people. They have their own style and way of learning, which you need to learn. Be curious and open because young people will always surprise. Learn to love the surprises.
Create a family environment.
Everyone should be respectful and non-judgemental of each other. Embrace their uniqueness and individuality.
Act like a family. At 7pm we all sit down to have dinner together; no phones, no hats, no swearing. Everybody has a job to do, the young people take turns cooking for everyone. They know to take turns washing up the dishes because this is the best way to get invited back again.
Create “together” moments, where it’s understood “everyone is important”.
Always follow through with what you say to a young person. Trust is everything!
You need to prove to them that you are trustworthy and reliable.
A lot of the youth get condescending praise, “Oh, that’s good. You put your plate in the dishwasher. That’s amazing.” It’s not amazing, It’s normal.
Challenge the young person and then acknowledge their achievements. You’ll find that your careful, subtle praise can be profoundly special to a teenager.
Don’t give direct advice.
Teens don’t want to be told what to do. Try to guide or lead them to create their own good decisions. Ask questions, so they come to the right conclusions. Avoid saying “don’t do that”, this often provokes a triggered response, compelling youth to go out do it.
Instead, encourage them to own their own decisions.
Learn to be comfortable with silence.
If you don’t have the right answer, don’t ignore the young person, but equally, don’t say anything at all. Sit in the silence. Don’t buckle under the young person’s power to persuade so they get their own way.
Be present. Stay close and learn about them. Show them you are listening. You don’t have to talk, just share the experience.
The expectations of the house should be clear. Routine is really healthy, especially for traumatised young people. Be predictable about what’s happening, at what time, on what day, all the time, so there’s no surprises.
And manners are important too. Everything in life is earned and the price we all pay is good manners.
Support their fashion decisions.
Don’t buy them clothes and expect them to be grateful. Take them to the shops and let them pick out what they want to wear.
Appearances are important to disadvantaged kids, the same as for all kids. Being popular is important to them. They know the “look” they want.
Let them “drive the decisions” and be content to “sit in the passenger seat”.
Empower them to say no.
This might sound surprising, but the youth we meet don’t often use the word ‘no’. Coming from disadvantage, they are generous and agreeable, sometimes to a fault. They are deeply empathetic and don’t want to disappoint. They want to fit in and be wanted, they think saying “yes” makes them likeable.
We coach them to use the ‘no’ word so they don’t give away their last cigarette or all their money. “No” is important when it comes to resisting bad behaviour too.
They begin to think about consequences, and reduce the bad decisions made in an effort to fit in.
Don’t hold negative assumptions.
Give them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t assume they are lying. And never call out what you think is a lie. It doesn’t help them or serve any purpose. Instead be silent; it will demonstrate an important lesson that lies won’t be accepted.
Prepare yourself for challenging conversations.
Consider the outcome you want before the conversation. What are the goals you want to achieve? Consider how the young person will respond.
Ask yourself, is this conversation achieving our purpose? And timing is critical; have the serious conversation when everyone can be mentally and emotionally present.
Use your imagination.
When you’re at a constant loggerheads with the young people in your life, present a different perspective.
How can you change the conversation? Don’t fixate on the kid being the problem. Articulate and communicate clearly what the problem is. Define the issue and remove the emotions.
Consider your ego could be the problem.
Teens don’t have to do what you say, even though parents believe children should be obedient. Often parents react to behaviours, not what is behind the behaviour. Ask why until you get to the core of what is happening. And don’t take the outburst as a personal attack.
Get curious, not furious.
Young people can be existing in a different world to what is in the parents mind. The young person could be suffering, in torment, and that can play out as “hating parents”. Don’t react to this type of behaviour. Work out what else could be going on.
Don’t be too precious. Consider what’s happening in your child’s life. If you don’t or you can’t, it could be unproductive or worse, destructive for everyone.
Respect the vulnerability of young people.
They are so capable, if our society could look at things differently and value their high level maturity and honour their independence, we’d all see, these young people are champions. They are heroes.
They do carry quite a lot of trauma and they need to work their way through that but quite often they can.
Remember to celebrate the small things, they can be so significant.
Mum inspired me
My interest in youth work started in 1989 when my mother returned to work.
Mum is petite but as a 5ft tall, freckly, strawberry-blonde haired woman she is no lightweight. Mum had me at 16 after leaving school at 15. Completely over protective of her children, I would quite often get a free pass when cheeky to teachers, just so they wouldn’t have to deal with my Mum.
I was 12 when Mum started working at a place called Ormond Regional Youth Centre. It was an institution, set up to accomodate boys and girls aged 9 to 15 year old. One section was a juvenile justice centre and another part was for some really traumatised young people.
I vividly remember my Mum bringing home some of the children for outings and even at that age, I had a great feeling of empathy for them. We would go roller-skating at Froggy’s in Gosford or go to the beach. It was something I always looked forward too.
I can clearly picture how passionate my mum was about trying to make a difference not only for her own children, but for the young people from Ormond. Helping those young people is what propelled her to return to school and get her Associate Diploma in youth work. I knew it was important.
Like my Mum, I have always wanted to help people and have dedicated myself to the service of others. I guess this work is my religion now.
I get compliments on my professional achievements, but it never feels right to be thanked for something that I need to do, and need no motivation to do, now or into the future.
I believe that every person deserves the same opportunities and quality of life that most take for granted. There are so many untold stories of struggle, resilience and triumph over adversity.
As hard as life can be, I know there is so much love in the community. Most people I meet want to help once they understand.
Genuinely educating people is the way to improve every community.
Peter Downie and Mark both appear in the Living Black episode “Taken” which will be broadcast on NITV Monday 21st June 2021 at 8:30pm. The program will also be streamed on SBS On Demand.
Peter Downie is a Dharug man living on Darkinjung country, and is currently working as a co-ordinator in specialist homeless services for Coast Shelter. Over the last eight years Peter has managed a refuge for homeless youth and is committed advocate for disadvantaged youth.