Risk? What risk?…

“Risk” is one of those words. It gets used a lot. Often without much explanation.

Risks ahead - signpost...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/DNY59

Children and young people are often spoken of as being “at risk,” or as “posing risks” to others.

But what do we mean by these terms?

What is “risk?”

The idea of risk has been a big part of my professional life. Specialising in adolescent sexual offending has meant that assessments of how risky a young person is has been central.

In these cases, the key question has been how likely (risky) is it that they will offend again?

But the notion of risk is central to other professional settings, such as: youth work; child protection; health; education, etc.

Little word, big heart…

Risk is one of those terms that is very easy to use. It tends to make people sit up and listen. And rightly so.

The problem is that it is so often left undefined. We use it, but don’t say what we mean. This matters.

It matters because:

  • It can stigmatise – a young person who is deemed to be at risk or who may pose a risk to others, becomes the focus of attention. With this can come assumptions and negative inferences that may or may not be justified.
  • It induces concern – professionals and family members rightly sit up and listen. They worry.
  • It provokes action (usually!) – no-one wants to be the one who knew about risks and did nothing.
  • It releases resources – when there are perceived risks and something needs to be done, resources have a habit of following.

These are generalisations, of course; but the principles stand. Risk is incendiary. When it is present, things happen, people act and decisions are made.

This is why we must get the idea of risk in proper perspective.

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It’s complicated…

Perhaps the greatest lesson on risk, is grasping its complexity? It covers a huge range of things, people, situations, dilemmas and challenges.

As an illustration, here are some of the things that fuel and influence risk in troubled young people:

Individual factors:

  • Family instability – losses, being in/out of the care system, mental health problems, etc.
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse – experiencing or witnessing it
  • Anti-social parents – poor role models, laissez faire parenting
  • Coercive/authoritarian parenting
  • Lack of supervision – no boundaries or poor ones, ineffective guidance
  • Delinquent peers – peers replace family, peer pressure, etc.
  • Special educational needs & poor educational engagement – compounded by other factors
  • Unstructured use of leisure time – “idle hands make mischief…”?
  • Stress & anxiety – reactive behaviours are common is troubled young people
  • Depressive symptoms – and other undiagnosed mental health issues/illness
  • Impulsiveness & attention problems
  • Motor restlessness – a common consequence of trauma (it’s not always ADHD!)
  • Attention-seeking – kids like this NEED attention, so they seek it out

Risk domains:

The practical reality of risk (as opposed to the idea of it) operates within a number of broad functional domains, including:

  • Biological – predispositions, organic problems (e.g. learning difficulties, ADHD), developmental (neurological) drivers)
  • Psychological – the child’s internal reality (e.g. attachment issues, anxiety)
  • Social – precipitating elements in the child’s environments (e.g. the presence of stressors, peers, survival instinct)

Risk issues:

A proper understanding of risk requires us to assess a number of different risk-related issues. These include:

  • Type – is this a past risk or a present risk?
  • Timing – during what stage of the child’s development is this risk present?
  • Source – what is the origin of the risk/s?
  • Frequency – how salient is the risk and in what circumstances?
  • Environment – are there places when this risk is more or less present?
  • Overlap/inter-dependency – do other present risks interact and/or exacerbate this one/each other?

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Lessons for us all…

I reckon we nailed the fact that risk is complex! So what can we learn from all this to help in our work with troubled young people?

  • Use the “risk” word thoughtfully – I know that I have used the word too freely and without proper thought on occasions. It’s easy to do. But is best avoided.
  • Bear in mind the stigma – the rights of the child matter. Using terms like “risk” unadvisedly can induce stigma and be unnecessarily labeling of young people. This should caution us against its flippant use.
  • Be specific – risk is always followed by something else. We need to be clear about the exact nature of the perceived risk. Avoiding generalisations is a good place to start in using the term wisely.
  • Get practical – this relates to the above point. If we’re talking about risk, we need to address three crucial issues in order to be useful and avoid the pitfalls already mentioned:

Risk of WHAT?
– Risk to WHOM?
– Risk in what CIRCUMSTANCES?  (More on this in a previous post)

Then we’ll be well-placed to know how best to mediate the risk to avert harm.

Final thought…

As those working with troubled young people, risk is intrinsic to what we do. We mustn’t avoid risk, hide it, dilute it or ignore it.

But we must use the term wisely, after serious thought and always try to be as specific as we possibly can.

That way, we fulfill our professional objectives of serving young people well and discharging our duties wisely.

Your thoughts?

  • What are your experiences of dealing with risks? What would you add to the above summary of the issues?

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Related previous posts…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

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  • The points you raise are so pertinent, I work as a clinician in a youth offending setting (as you know), the identification and management of ‘risks’ is a daily occurrence as you might expect. Under ‘Risk Domains’ you might want to consider adding ‘ quality of historical information’. In my experience when completing comprehensive historical searches for YP who are seen has having ‘risky behaviours’ there is in some case no corroborating information to the claims being made or alternatively not enough emphasis being given to very concerning behaviours. I now make it my business to back source any risk related concerns associated with mental health in an effort to feed quality information into the multi agency arena for consideration. No information is ignored but I would like to think that appropriate ‘weight ‘ is given to historical information. A recent example of this; an ASD YP with a fascination with the fabric of women’s underwear being seen in some quarters as a sexual predator with no history of any sexually harmful behaviours.

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Ang – very well said! The importance of accurate information can’t be over-emphasised, particularly when it comes to making judgments about risk management or, as you say, when it might NOT be necessary to address risk at all. I feel particularly strongly about the issue of stigma that is associated with the perceived presence of risk – the SHB example you mention is a classic case in point. No-one wants to get risk wrong; I completely agree that we need to do our homework thoroughly so as not to under- or over-estimate risk. We serve the young people and the community well when w’re thorough. Thanks for commenting, Ang; erudite and helpful, as always! Cheers, J.