First impressions matter. So does the language we use.

This is particularly the case in services dealing with troubled teenagers.

Why “child” is better…

Young people, particularly those who offend, cause all kinds of problems. For their family. For the public. For the professionals who work with them. And for themselves.

This is a given.

But these problems also cause people to view such teenagers negatively. To look down on them and to judge them.

In my view, our use of language can help dilute this negativity. It also has number of other advantages.

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“Young people…”

If I were sitting with a group of teenagers I would use the term “young people” without concern.

Indeed there are some real positives about this:

  • Accuracy – teenagers are acutely aware of not being either a young child or an adult. They are the inbetweenies! The term “young people” recognises this without over-emphasising it!
  • Respect – this is key to engagement and to affording teenagers a sense that we take them seriously whilst acknowledging both their relative youth (they’re not adults yet) and their relative maturity (they’re no longer little children).

There can also be merit in using the term in documents, posters, leaflets, etc. Especially if we want young people themselves to take notice.


So what are the downsides?

This is principally about non-professional audiences – people who don’t work with teenagers or have any sense of investment in serving them. But it also applies to those professionals who tend to take a more punitive approach.
For example, I heard someone say “these are not children anymore, they are young people”… They went on to say that we should treat them more like adults.

  • Justifying punitive approaches – using the term in this way tends to be part of a wider narrative that is seeking a more strident or punitive approach, particularly to offending.

In this way, the term is part of an argument that seeks to distance itself from children and tries to justify treating teenagers more like grown-ups. This plays into the lack of empathy and patience already felt by lots of people when it comes to troublesome adolescents.

  • The adultification of children – adults are responsible for their actions and can expect to be dealt with accordingly. Using “young people” as a label allows and even facilitates this.

Using the term “child” or “children” confronts this passively. It also makes those who want to punish and judge feel uncomfortable. It challenges the need for retribution!

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“Yes, they’re children, but…”

In the UK the age of adulthood is 18. Anyone below this is still a child.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/auremar

As such they have certain rights and can expect to be treated as minors.
Of course, we rightly expect that children increase in maturity as they approach adulthood. This brings with it an understandable belief that they also have the capacity to be more responsible.


This assumes a normal developmental journey. It assumes the child has:

  • Parent/s – someone who can provide consistent, nurturing care
  • Food – meals that come regularly and provide the necessary nutrition for a growing child
  • Safety – the space to develop without danger and begin exploring the world
  • Role models – who exemplify how to be a person with rights and responsibilities
  • Boundaries – those crucial fences within which children can explore and learn about the world

But we all know that many of the kids we work with have lacked some or all of these.
Without them a child cannot assume either the maturity or the sense of responsibility we would normally expect.


“Child” or “children”…

Use of the word “child” or “children” recognises their chronological age – they’re not 18 yet.

It also gives credit to those teenagers whose journey of development has been impaired by adverse childhood experiences.


Final word…

As those committed to the rights of troubled children and young people, we want to do everything we can to ensure they have the best chance of success.

Language may be a little thing. But employing terms that are both helpful and accurate can have a big impact on those not quite as patient and empathic as us!

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What do you think?…

  • Do you agree that using the terms”child” or “children” can help further the rights of troubled kids?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.


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© Jonny Matthew 2017



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