How to Help a Troubled Youth 

August 26, 2014
Receptionist behind a desk helping a woman

Oftentimes, kids with cognitive, emotional, or behavioral issues need your help.

But sometimes the behavior of a child or teen who struggles with a physical or emotional challenge can be hard to handle to say the least. The issues troubled kids deal with can cause them to act out in a variety of ways: They might be angry, frustrated, or defensive; they might be withdrawn or aggressive; they might challenge or resist your attempts to help. In these situations, their stress responses can flood them with emotions so intense that they’re unable to think or communicate rationally.

So what are your options when everything you try to do to help ends up escalating a kid’s behavior instead of defusing it?

“Engaged, conversational connected time with individual youth is paramount to building and maintaining reclaiming relationships with the youth in our care,” writes CPI's Dr. Randy Boardman, Ed.D., in Conflict in the Classroom.

“Walk around, and talk to and listen to those you serve at your facility,” Randy writes.

This helps in a multitude of ways—whether you work in education, social services, juvenile justice, a group home, or in any capacity with troubled youth. Communication is the foundation for two especially important ways to reach kids: Establishing trust and identifying triggers.

Establishing Trust
Getting to know a child helps you create an emotionally safe environment for them. By asking questions, listening empathically, and giving the child your undivided attention, you can show them that you’re there to protect them and to empower them to feel safe. Find out about their family or home history, key events in their life, and little things, like their favorite TV show or their favorite season. What helps them cope and makes them feel better? When a child trusts that you know them and that you understand and respect where they’re coming from, you can create a safe space where they feel valued and secure.

Identifying Triggers
Another benefit of asking questions and—most importantly—listening and tuning in to words, emotions, and body language, is that it clears a window through which you can recognize the causes of problematic behavior. Consider things like:

  • Precipitating Factors. What sets the youth off? Is it something someone says or does? Is it the way someone says something—their tone, volume, or cadence?
  • Support. Are you offering more support than the child needs? Not enough?
  • Adjustments. Can you change something in your own behavior to prevent the youth from escalating? Or maybe you can change something in the environment—block a bothersome glare from the sun, adjust the positioning of a desk or a bed, modify a lunch menu.

When you identify what causes a child to react negatively, you can tweak things to prevent that factor from triggering behaviors.

Of course, these are just a few techniques. Training is important for learning and customizing behavior management skills to the unique needs of the kids you strive to help.

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