“Trust me.” People say it all the time. I’ve said it myself.
But I never say it to troubled young people. Why? Because it’s so much more than a decision…
Image courtesy of ©123rf/Paisan Changhirun (adapted)

 Image courtesy of ©123rf/Paisan Changhirun (adapted)

How to work so troubled kids will trust you…

Maybe we should start with a simple question: What is trust?
Well, it has something to do with feeling safe. It has a bit to do with confidence in someone else. It has a lot to do with believing in the likely outcome of something that hasn’t happened yet.
Here’s what Dictionary.com says trust is:

Image courtesy of ©Dictionary.com

Image courtesy of ©Dictionary.com

So why do the kids we work with struggle to trust?…

Troubled kids need to trust. And, despite their apparent complete lack of it at times, I believe that they want to trust someone.
But it’s hard. Here’s why?

  • Because people let them down – family, friends, professionals, services, society in general. Often these young people have tried to trust others but have been let down. Things haven’t worked out as planned. So they are slow to trust again. Understandably they ask questions like, “Why should I trust you? What makes you different?”
  • Because trust is hard to do – not least because it hasn’t worked out before. But also, when you’re a survivor, you learn that the only way to be sure is to trust yourself. At least then when things go wrong, there’s no-one else to blame. Laying yourself open to being let down, again, is a tough call for anyone – particularly a child.
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  • Because “I’ve done OK so far” – OK, so things aren’t perfect. By a long way. But I’m still here. I’m still trying. As measures of success go in a challenging life, that’s not a bad outcome. So why would I risk shortening the odds by trusting someone else? Anyway, I don’t know anyone that reliable.
  • Because as time goes on, it gets harder – we all rely on ourselves as much as possible. But most of us have others we can lean on when things get tough. Young people have often gone a very long time without having someone they can rely on. That makes trusting a massive challenge

It’s tough on your own…

Our instinct as human beings is to trust others. Part of us wants to trust because it’s intrinsic to our nature. That’s why there’s hope for us with these young people – because something inside of them wants  to let go and trust someone. It’s hard to do it all by yourself.
[callout]”It is impossible to go through life without trust: That is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.” Graeme Greene – The Ministry of Fear.[/callout]

Trust has to be earned…

Here’s the nub of the issue. The nature of trust makes it hard to do. It’s about letting go and letting someone else take some control.
So what kind of people do we need to be?…

Someone who’s competent…

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/36clicks

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/36clicks

Years ago I was a rock climber. I quickly realised that if I was to ever climb the really big stuff, I needed a partner.
But not just any partner. It wasn’t a case of grabbing the nearest person and asking if they had any free time on Saturday to come and climb with me. Oh no no no…
This person had to be someone I could trust. Because they would be holding the other end of the rope whilst I was dozens of feet off the ground – sometimes more. If I fell, I needed to know they were up to the job.
You see the only time this is tested is when you fall. So when I fell off, from over 200 feet up a North Wales cliff, my partner caught me – my trust was well-placed.
[callout]”Anyone who goes through life trusting people without making sure they are worthy of trust is a fool.” Elizabeth Aston – The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy, 2005[/callout]
If we’re not competent, when young people finally need to lean on us we might be found wanting. And we add even more weight to their tendency not to trust again – because someone else has let them down.

Someone they know…

Last week a woman knocked on my front door and announced that she was from the rental agency and was coming to inspect my flat. She was surprised when I said that I hadn’t had her email about the visit, but I let her in anyway. I was confident that my ever-so-slightly OCD tendencies would see my through as the flat was tidy. So I let her get on with it.
10 minutes later she came into the room where I was working to announce her verdict: “just two things to report – the place could do with a vacuuming and there’s some mould around one of the both taps that needs sorting out.”
The cheek of it! This person whom I’d never met before had the gall to walk into my flat and point out what was wrong with it! Had she been a good friend, my reaction would have been very different. But she wasn’t. So I was angry and defensive (though I didn’t show it).  There was swearing after she went!  :0)
You see, in order for us to be the kind of person that troubled kids will trust, we have to work hard to earn that trust. When we know someone, we know whether we can trust them or not.
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Someone who doesn’t give up…

One of the biggest hinderances to effective case work with troubled young people is staff changes.  How can we expect young people to trust us if they have no certainty that we’re going to be around very long?
If you only plan being in a job for a few months, don’t work with troubled kids – you’ll only make things worse. Enough said about that.
The other problem is when professionals get upset by kids’ behaviour and effectively give up on them. Here’s how this might show itself:

  • Telling them off instead of empathising – dealing with these kids is a long term project, so settle in for the long haul. Try to understand what’s driving the behaviour, rather than finding an effective
    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Juan Monino

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Juan Monino

    punishment – what does that even mean? See here for more on this…
  • Taking their negativity personally instead of looking for meaning – young people will push us to see if we’re serious. They want to test us to see if we can handle the hard stuff. If we can grasp this truth and see the real meaning of the behaviour, we have a chance of moving one step closer to building trust. Disclosure will come on the back of that trust. Eventually.
  • Seeing negativity as the problem rather than a symptom of it – someone with a sprained ankle will limp, if they can move at all. The limp isn’t the problem; the sprain is. So treat the sprain and the limp will right itself. The same goes for kids with problematic behaviour. Ask the question: “how does this behaviour function for this child?” i.e. what does it say about the real problem. Then focus your efforts there.

[callout]”Great works are performed not by strength but perseverance.” Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784[/callout]
There are doubtless other ways that young people are let down or poorly served by professional helpers, but I hope these common ones help our argument here.

In summary:

Here’s what I think troubled young people might say to those trying to help them:

“Don’t expect me to let you hold the rope if I don’t know whether you know how to use it. I won’t. Why would I?”
“Don’t expect me to trust you with life-changing secrets if I don’t even know you. If I don’t know you, how do I know you can handle what i have to say?”
“Hang in there with me. Make a commitment for the long haul. If you can’t, do something else…”
“Do all these and I will trust you. Eventually. And when I do, I’ll give you the information you need to help me and will listen to what you have to say, because I don’t really want to deal with all this stuff on my own.”

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Your thoughts?

  • What’re your thoughts on building trust with troubled young people? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t?

Please let me know what you think – join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by clicking here.

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