Troubled Kids Book

Working With Troubled Children & Teenagers - Values & Practice
Fasten your seatbelts; this is one heck of a read. As a practitioner in the field of youth work and psychotherapy for more years than I care to remember,  I believe that this book is definitely essential reading for anyone working with troubled young people. The pages are full of the wisdom, insight and compassion that can only come from years of frontline work, personal reflection and indeed sleepless nights. Jonny Matthew knows what he is talking about….but more than that this book is a genuine testimony to the power and transformative impact of empathy and the presence of  ‘one good adult’  in the life of a young person.   The honesty, humour and at times vulnerability of the author will challenge you to inquire into your own work practice, your attitudes and values.   Allow yourself to embody the richness and sensitivity of this powerful book and you too will experience nurturing, support and renewed energy for your work.
Brian Johnston

Director, Candle Youth Services, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

Working with troubled children and teenagers’ will be a fantastic resource for those people who are doing just that for very low wages in thousands of settings every day.  Easy to read and written in a chatty style, the book feels like having a conversation with someone who has spent their life working with young people who are in hard places.  Jonny has and still is doing that work, and in this book he has distilled the things he has learnt about the importance of good relationship based work, into short, easily understood messages.  
‘If this book gets into the hands of the people at the coal face it will make a huge difference to the lives of troubled youngsters.  I’d like to see it become a compulsory text for youth workers, teaching assistants, support workers and anyone else working directly with children and young people.
Ann Bell

Director, Adoption UK in Wales

Read the introduction here...


‘Reprimand not a child immediately on the offence. Wait till the irritation has been replaced by serenity.’

Moses Hasid

‘When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.’

St Francis de Sales

Best insult ever!

The best insult I ever had from a young person was very graphic: ‘F*** off you short-a***d Yorkshire c***.’ It was brilliant!

Brilliant because it focussed on all the things he thought would hurt me: my size (not very tall!), my accent, and his thoughts about me. It was only a few words long. And it was cutting!

Reading this you may experience one of two responses to it:

1. A chuckle to yourself, as you recall similar experiences you’ve had, or

2. Your defences kick in, and you begin to feel a little angry or agitated about the fact that kids sometimes behave in this way.

This book is for people who are ‘number 1s’.

‘Number 2s’ – are you willing to give this book a chance to change your thinking? Are you open to radically changing your practice, and engaging troubled young people in ways that will help them? If so, please carry on!


Finger-waggers need not apply

You see, people who are ‘number 2s’ have a tendency towards a belief system typified by the following markers:

  • Feeling offended by the things young people say to them, particularly personal insults.
  • Seeing compliance to ‘adult norms’ as the main sign of a young person’s progress.
  • Focussing on behaviour rather than personality, obedience rather than character, likeability now, as opposed to potential for later development.
  • Responding to the behaviour rather than the person.

Focussing on how the conduct affects them, the adult; not what it says about the young person’s current state of mind or their past experiences. In short, these folk see their role as mainly being to ‘patrol the boundaries’ of what they consider to be ‘good’ behaviour and enforce them: enforcement being the main point.

Such people often find themselves in conflict with the children they work with and are, more often than not, the people on the receiving end of aggression and conflict.

Having said that, anyone working with troubled young people will end up dealing with aggression and offensive language at some point – it comes with the territory.

How we deal with difficult behaviour says a lot about how we understand young people in the first place.

Insults: what’s going on?

Here’s a quick summary of what’s going on when young people start throwing out insults:


  • Communication – the young person is making contact with us.This is a good thing, regardless of the content!
  • Information – they are focused on us and they are letting us know something about themselves, whether they mean to or not.
  • Emotion – they’re letting us know that there are strong feelings going on that have caused a particularly spirited response.

All this helps us. It might not feel helpful when we’re in the moment. But it helps.

It helps us because it informs our understanding of the young person in front of us. It also equips us to help them to deal with the situation better: to get over the emotion of it, learn from it and move on.

My brain hurts!

Aggression from troubled kids isn’t personal. Well, usually anyway…

Their aggression is rooted in the responses which have kept them safe and/or enabled them to cope whilst living in difficult and traumatic situations. Thinking of it as a reflex reaction, rather than a decision, can be a useful way to put it into perspective.

Children raised in trauma, fear or threat struggle to recognise, understand and contain their feelings. The more logical, thoughtful and reflective functions of the rational brain are overridden by the emotional surges and lack of control that years of problems have caused.

Understanding that we can’t reason young people out of strong feelings, or command them into obedience through finger-wagging, is a great first step towards resolving aggressive outbursts.


When logic and reason are overwhelmed by tension and emotion, something has to blow. And it has to blow out fully before talking can really help.

Onward and upward

In this book I will lay out the kinds of values, attitudes and approaches which, in my experience, encourage effective engagement with troubled children and young people.

This is a journey that requires us to be open and willing to learn. Unless we are prepared to reflect on what we do, ask ourselves why we do it that way and how we can improve, we will short-circuit any hope of getting better at what we do and we’ll never practise as effectively as we otherwise might!

We all have a little of the finger-wagger in us. But if that’s your method, and you like it, put this book down now.

For those who recognise this tendency but want to do better – read on!


Let me encourage you to wreck this book!

To get the most out of it, you should probably mark it, underline stuff, write in the margin, highlight bits, cross it out, even. But please don’t read it passively.

I love it when I get to the end of a book and can look back over what I reacted to while reading it. I hope you’ll do the same.








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