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Taking a strengths approach to working with young people

Posted: 10/02/2021

Young people’s lives are in a constant state of flux. They are dealing with growth spurts, the unnerving appearance of body hair in odd places, the making and breaking of relationships, changing schools, hormones, brain restructuring (yep, there are a lot of upgrades happening in there and it can get a bit ‘buggy’ at times), navigating gender identity and sexuality, learning to drive, getting a job, moving out of home, managing money. And that’s without all the other life stuff, like mental health issues, family breakdowns, moving houses, births, deaths, etc. It can be a crazy and chaotic few years.

Then, this year, we throw in a global pandemic, as if things weren’t hard enough!

So what can the people supporting young people do to help them navigate this wild ride?

First things first

Some young people don’t need our help—they are happy to manage things on their own. Other young people will reach out and let you know that they are struggling or need a hand. Some just get really loud. Or really quiet. Or wear a lot of black.

Some young people may say they are feeling one thing, but inside, they are feeling something quite different.

Just as every young person is different, how we respond to young people has to be tailored to the relationship we have with them.

Having said that, here are a few ideas, taken from the strengths approach, about how you can support the young people in your life.

Listen

Okay, so this one sounds obvious, right? But it’s actually not as easy as it seems.

As teachers, professionals or parents, we can sometimes feel that it is our job to guide and shape young people. We may feel the need to give advice or information. While this is important and valuable at times, one of the most effective things we can do to build rapport and trust with young people is listen. While we would probably all say we do this, it can actually be quite difficult to do it well.

Active listening is listening carefully and with focus. It means not interrupting or offering suggestions, just being present.

When we listen, rather than immediately making suggestions or jumping in to offer help, young people are more likely to feel heard. If we then follow up by paraphrasing what we have heard to check we’ve understood what the young person has said, we are confirming that we have got the right end of the stick. This is a really important step as it is easy to think a young person means one thing when they actually mean something slightly, or completely, different!

Acknowledging how the young person is feeling can also be affirming. We might say things like, ‘That must have been really hard’ or ‘I can see you’re feeling pretty sad/angry/frustrated’.

This simple strategy demonstrates to the young person that we value them and care about what they have to say.

Ask curious questions

An important aspect of the strengths approach is asking questions. But not all questions were created equal!

Many of the questions we commonly ask young people have assumptions or answers built in. They may be leading or framed in such a way that the young person feels they can only respond in a particular way.

The most useful questions are open-ended, curious questions. These are questions where we don’t assume that we have the answers—we are genuinely interested in the answer and we are not automatically interpreting what is being said through our pre-conceived ideas about what the answer could or should be.

Let’s be honest, we all know when people are really interested in what we have to say and when they are just asking questions to tick a box in their head (or a real box) or they have already filled in the blank before we have even opened our mouth!

Young people know when we are genuinely interested in what they have to say. They are much more likely to trust us if we ask questions from a place of curiosity.

Notice strengths

When a young person is having a tough time, like all of us, they often find it hard to notice the good stuff—the things they do well, their personal qualities, the resources they have around them, the people who care about them.

If it feels appropriate, it can sometimes be helpful to notice these strengths and share this with the young person. Or we might focus on what the young person did to help themselves manage the situation. We might say something like, ‘It sounds like you’ve had a tough day, but you got through it. You must be a pretty strong person to go through that and still have a sense of humour. And it sounds like you have some really great friends. What did you do that helped?’

It can also be worth talking about how certain traits the young person sees as weaknesses could also be seen as strengths—being shy, for example, could also mean that the young person is a good listener and is empathetic, being anxious could be reframed as meaning that the young person cares and thinks deeply about things.

Stay calm, clear and consistent

While some young people can behave in unpredictable ways at times (can’t we all), it is important that we create a safe, respectful, calm and consistent environment around them. Let them throw their storms against the walls, while we stay steady.

Is this easy? Not always!

If you can, take a step back and remind yourself that young people’s brains are going through enormous change and they are not always able to easily control their emotions. By detaching ourselves from the intensity of the situation, we gain perspective and distance, which can make it easier to stay calm and not say or do things we might regret later, or that might escalate the situation.

Always ask yourself, how can I be the safe place in the storm? By being the calm and steady person in the situation, we are both modelling respectful behaviour and letting the young person know we will be a stable and reliable person in their lives.

Find time for the meaningful stuff

If you are a parent or friend of a young person, think about what you do together that you both find meaningful and fun? Do you like watching movies making stuff, bike riding, cooking, fishing, playing computer games?

Do you have the same sense of humour? Having a good belly laugh can be incredibly healing. And it can be a great way to soften the edges of challenging situations, while building connection and trust.

If you are a teacher or professional, can you incorporate activities that you know the young person enjoys into your classes or conversations?

By including activities the young person enjoys into your interactions, you are acknowledging that you recognise what is important to them and you show them that you value them as a person.

Your turn

These are just a few suggestions. We would love to hear from you. What strengths-based strategies do you have for supporting the young people in your life?

If you want to know more about taking a strengths approach to working with people, including how to ask great questions, check out The Strengths Approach by Wayne McCashen. Our online courses also include a range of practical tips and tools for implementing strengths-based practices into your work and life.

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