It is easy to see how teenagers, especially those who are 16+ can be forgotten that they are still only children. This is especially significant as half the children in care are in their adolescents, we can break this down further with most of these children having grown up within the care system and those that have come into care as adolescents. However, both groups will have something in common and this is their emancipation from being in care.
As practitioners we have known even before the Children Act 1989 that our understanding of this age group needs to be improved in order to better meet the needs of the most complex and difficult age group to work with. It is this rush to emancipation that can cause the biggest confusion to those working with Teenagers, balancing the needs to develop and learn as an individual towards independence but remembering that they are children and still learning.
As a manager of an adolescent team I have been reflecting upon this all week, often I am given reports regarding ‘incidents’ of challenging behaviour and from this discuss with the worker what the issues are, if any. It is these reports that I am often left wondering whether we have forgotten that these young people are still only children?
Moreover, I think this reflects who we are in society that we find criticism easier than compliments, so much so that many of us struggle to accept a compliment now. For teenagers who are striving towards the goal of independence and adulthood who are still learning about themselves and who they are (where they have come from and going to) It is important to seek approval and recognition.
So, after many placement breakdowns, rejection and loss, after many meetings and different ‘professionals’ visiting you and transporting you to different placements rather than homes, it becomes easy to understand why many young people can behave the way they do. Or is it?
Time can quickly pass, and before you know it you are faced with a six-foot teenager that has grown up with uncertainty and rejection. A young person who has not know stability or love or learnt to trust either their own family or the people who are there to care for them.
A message that I heard this week from an incredibly perceptive young man loud and clear, which if it had been a punch would have winded me.
‘I know what I should do! I just do not like been told what will happen if I do not do it! Why can I not be told what the positive will be, if I do do it?’
Understanding human behaviour is often complex and yet also simple sometimes, and this young man had a good understanding of this. Therefore understanding adolescent behaviour is achievable if you can remember that after the bravado, the posturing and behaviours that these young people are still children. That it is becoming more obvious that it is easy to forget that teenagers are children and that although they might not want to be treated like a child that our language and behaviours must balance and reflect that we understand where they are in their development.
So like children firm boundaries are needed, but also to develop and stimulate their learning a strong positive emotional warmth is needed. And we all know when this is genuine or the person trying to emulate it is not really interested and therefor even the most genuine person will have a hard job to convince this to a looked after young person of this, but the difference between those that understand adolescent behaviour and those that do not is those that do not give up trying.
It continues to worry me that with a lot of thought and consideration being given to early intervention and the reclaiming social work models that an understanding and time needed to work with adolescent young people will be lost to teams designed for prevention of these young people entering into care rather than the careful analysis and understanding that is needed. It also worries me that even though extra funding was found for CAMHS that this vital support is not getting to the right people.
It also concerns me that the focus remains looking at behaviour and whether young people can be safeguard from their behaviour. Instead of looking at what positive actions we can take to prevent their behaviour from turning from healthy learning to defiance and rejection. To use the words of the young person I visited this week again
‘my friends think they understand me because they have watched Tracey Beaker! but they can not know how alone I feel and being in care is not just about having a different activity each night of the week!’
This is an important message for residential care providers, foster carers and social workers lets not forget that teenagers are still children, that understanding our own impact and words have upon the young person is essential to prevent the most severe behaviours and the impact of a placement breakdown can have upon the young person.
I know that when I receive information about ‘incidents’ that i work closely with all involved to understand what has happened and ensuring that the outcomes reflect proportionately what has happened. And often this involves unpopular decision sometimes for the placement, whose first though is to sanction the behaviour, which can be needed still. However, for me it is preventing it from happening again which is important and often the hardest lesson to learn.
So let’s not forget the Children and help them become adults and achieve their emancipation of being in care and prevent their own experiences becoming learnt behaviour.