The Looks that Say It All
By Tammy Hopper, National Safe Place Network
You know the look. If you have been around a while, you have seen it hundreds if not thousands of times. You are meeting someone new and they ask what you do. Struggling to find the simplest, most straightforward answer, you might say, “I work with youth.” The person might ask for more. Perhaps they’ll ask, “Are you a teacher?” and while the answer is yes, you are, you will probably say no, you work at a shelter (or group home, residential treatment center, outpatient counseling, wilderness camp, or afterschool program). And then, wait for it ... the look.
The look is filled with bemusement, and then questions, and then you hear: “Oh, that must be rewarding – I couldn’t do it,” or “These kids today – they just need discipline,” or maybe even, “You must be a saint to deal with those types of kids.”
You might take the time to explain, but often it doesn’t seem worth it. Because people who respond this way may never recognize, understand or feel what we do.
Working with young people is an honor. It is a privilege and enormous responsibility to stand in front of a young person and say, “Give me your best shot – I can take it. I believe in you and I am not backing down, running away or giving up on you.” You see their minds working quickly to regain position. “Oh yeah, we’ll see,” they might tell you, and then the tests begin. But you are ready. You have studied. You have backup and better yet, you have faith. And, after one or maybe many struggles – you see a new expression on the young person’s face. The one we anticipate. The one we hope to see. The one we love.
This expression is filled with wonder, questions and a glimmer of confidence and self-esteem. It is also filled with amazement, frankly. It says, “Don’t you watch the news? We’re trouble. There’s no point in trying. We will end up making sure that everything negative we’ve ever heard about ourselves is true because that may be the only way we don’t disappoint our families, the system or anyone else who cares to pay any attention.”
We might respond with frustration or even an unshed tear. But in our faces are these messages: “I know. I know who you are. I see your creativity, your energy, your resilience, your love for other young people and the dreams that you swallow rather than let anyone hear them out loud. I know. You have made mistakes. You followed the leader or you led others into harm. But we learn. We change. We grow. It starts here, and I am by your side.”
The media, the system, the community and sometimes even our own families have a hard time understanding and embracing the youth we serve. It is easier to assign them a label and move on. As we celebrate the positive impact of youth care work, take a moment to think about the youth that called, asked for help, walked into a shelter, received a hygiene kit or accepted a hug. Each one defied the odds and the expectations, and took a step toward something different. Your simple expression told them it was safe to keep moving in the right direction instead of retreating into the wrong one.
Not too long ago, Robin Williams – a comic genius and gifted actor – took his own life. In the film “Dead Poet’s Society,” as the wise Professor Keating, he tells the boys in his class that life is like a great and powerful play, and asks them what verse each of them is going to contribute to it.
I ask the same thing. What is the verse we contribute to the lives of youth? How do we support them in creating and sharing their own verses so their stories blend with ours into this ongoing, powerful play?
Remember that looks reflect what we see, feel and believe inside. Look at our youth with hope even when they push us further than we thought we could be pushed. Look at our youth in partnership, even when they refuse every offer of assistance that comes their way. Look at our youth with acceptance. Even when who they are challenges every fiber of who you are. Then, wait for it: their look back.
Tips for engaging youth:
Engage youth by name. Often helpers are excited to jump right into the issue, so they tend to start conversations without actually using the young person’s name. But using the youth’s name demonstrates your connection to the youth as a person – not just a case.
Be authentic in your encouragement. Youth recognize false praise or “good jobs.” To make it real, share specifics and ask each young person what went well about a specific opportunity.
Ask open-ended questions – and listen. Ask questions about the young person as an individual and about their experiences versus asking questions geared to helping us complete paperwork. Consider asking questions like: “Where are some places you feel most safe?” or “What are some ways I can support you when you feel disappointed?”
Watch for communication roadblocks. Some of our most common communication techniques can be roadblocks if they are overused or not used in context. Think about such techniques as praising, giving advice, directing, interpreting, and humoring — all will be ineffective if they don’t fit the youth or the situation.
Remember, context is critical. When and where you engage a young person, whether or not the youth is comfortable – all of these elements and more impact engagement. Sometimes it is helpful to say to a youth, “Tell me something about yourself that may be in your file that is not true.” This question helps build the bridge between case notes and how young people interpret their own life stories.