Boy in handcuffs upset...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths


Having worked with “young offenders” for well over 20 years, I have one unshakeable conviction:

They are “young” first, and “offenders” second.

Why does this matter?
Because who we‘re dealing with, will impact on how we deal with them.
As those who work to aid recovery in troubled young people, how we view them is key to everything else we do…

Why does “child first, offender second”, matter?

How we conceive the young person influences everything:

  • Our attitudes
  • The language we use 
  • The hope and effort we bring to the work, and in particular…
  • The strength of our advocacy

All these are affected directly by our inner concept of them. Before you dismiss this as flakey nonsense, hear me out.
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Word association…

Let’s think about word association for a minute. I’ll suggest a word and you see what comes into your mind. Ready? Here goes:

  • “Offender” – I thought of crime, offence, court, prison, victims…
  • “Child” – I thought of parent, small, vulnerable, help, dependent…

Fascinating difference, isn’t it? May be your thoughts were different in specifics, but I wouldn’t mind betting they were similar in kind and general tone.
If our immediate thoughts can be so varied, dependent on what we have as the driving concept, I wonder how our working ethos and emphasis are affected…

Be radical about “teenagers’…

The word “teenager” has it’s own PR problems. The things that come to mind for me are:

  • “Teenager” – hoody, angry, awkward, moody, spots…

Recently I’ve started to use the term “child” to describe the adolescents I deal with.
Not when I’m with them, of course. That would be credibility suicide!
What I’ve found is that in doing so, the term has focussed me much more on the reasons for young people ending up in the criminal justice system.
It shifts the focus from behaviour (symptoms) to development (causes). From what they did, on to why…
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Cause and effect…

I’ve written before about cause and effect. I outlined there the kinds of things that lie behind offending behaviour.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/imgorthand


The basic idea is this: most kids don’t get caught up in the criminal justice system. Those who do have often suffered some pretty horrendous experiences.
Their start in life hasn’t been good. So, they need every chance they can get to work through these things. Given this chance-in some cases numerous chances-they can turn things around.
The ending can be better than the start.

Final thought…

Seeing the child behind the behaviour is, in my view, the key way of ensuring our practice properly recognises this…

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014