How to engage with young people who have complex emotional difficulties

Prakash Fernandes advises practitioners on using solution-focused approaches to help build good working relationships with young people

Young boy sat on cofa talking to a practionerIt's not always easy for practitioners to get young people to engage in a particular service. There can be many reasons for this, but through our evaluations of NSPCC services we've found one common concern among many young people with complex emotional difficulties – they don't always trust the practitioners working with them.

Although practitioners are often able to overcome this distrust using their skills and experience, the type of support on offer can sometimes get in the way of engaging the child.

It could be that the young person is not able to see any positive change after talking about their difficulties or that they think the conversations they are having are 'too heavy' with too much of a focus on past problems.

It's crucial to overcome these barriers so that young people can begin to engage with and benefit from services. As one young person on the edge of care told us, "I think it's like there was a wall in front of you, and you just grabbed a hammer and smashed it down."


Tips for engaging young people

Here are 5 things we've learned about how to engage young people with complex emotional difficulties.

1. See them as partners in the change process
If possible, let young people decide the issue they want to discuss and the number of sessions they attend. We've found that if there is space for them to give feedback at the end of each session, children and young people are more inclined to come back in the future. This was because they feel they have greater ownership of the whole process.

2. Focus on specific outcomes
Young people have told us they value sessions that focus on breaking down their complex problems into individual goals they can describe and visualise. This gives them the tools to monitor their progress and helps them feel a greater sense of control in their lives.

3. Increase awareness of strengths
It is important that any service helps young people to identify and name their strengths, giving them an opportunity to talk about how they have done things differently or how they coped with situations that were complex. This can increase their confidence in talking to people around them.

4. Identify and involve a solution team around the child
Involve a young person's carers, parents or social workers where possible. This helps to create a safe space for some difficult conversations and ensures the young person is supported outside the sessions. It also helps make sure all the people supporting the young person are working together and avoids duplicating work.

5. Make the service easily accessible
Ensure the venues are appropriate - both in terms of location and atmosphere. Little things like having food and drink available can help make a young person less nervous about meeting and talking to someone new.

Using a solution-focused approach

We've found that solution-focused approaches which are led by the needs of the young person such as our examples above, can really help to develop a positive relationship between a young person and their practitioner. This is particularly the case where complex emotional difficulties are present.

Our Face to Face service was developed based on these ideas. It helped children in care work on any problem they were facing at home, at school, with friends, or with personal issues. They could set their own goals and decide on the timing and location of the sessions. Our evaluation of the service showed that 70 per cent of the children who were most in need at the beginning of the service – those with clinical levels of distress – showed improvement at the end of the service and finished within a normal range of wellbeing.

Face to Face is no longer being delivered, but we have carried out an evaluation of the service to learn what worked and used this learning to develop a solution-focused practice toolkit. This free toolkit provides worksheets, activities and ideas you can tailor for use with the children and young people you work with.

Although a short term, solution-focused approach might not always be the most appropriate for every young person, there's promising evidence that it can help involve and engage children and young people, ultimately ensuring that each child gets the best outcome they can from a service.

Like this blog?

Let us know which blog you've read, what you think, share information you have on the topic or seek advice. 

Get in touch

More from impact and evidence

Learning from young people: understanding wellbeing after child sexual abuse

Drs Allnock, Warrington and Beckett introduce a research project working with teenagers who have experienced sexual abuse to understand their mental health needs.
Find out more

The impact of childhood abuse: what can we learn from neuroscience?

Professor Eamon McCrory explains the theory of latent vulnerability, how this can affect a child’s long term mental health and what can be done to help.
Find out more

Impact and evidence insights

Each week we’ll be posting insights from professionals about evaluation methods, issues and experiences in child abuse services and prevention. 
Read our blogs

Support for professionals

CASPAR

Our Current Awareness Service for Practice, Policy And Research delivers free weekly email alerts to keep you up-to-date with all the latest safeguarding and child protection news.

Sign up to CASPAR

Information Service

Our free service for people who work with children can help you find the latest policy, practice, research and news on child protection and related subjects.

For more information, call us or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

0808 800 5000

Submit an enquiry

Follow @NSPCCpro

Follow us on Twitter and keep up-to-date with all the latest news in child protection.

Follow @NSPCCpro on Twitter

Library catalogue

We hold the UK's largest collection of child protection resources and the only UK database specialising in published material on child protection, child abuse and child neglect.

Search the library

New in the Library

A free weekly email listing all of the new child protection publications added to our library collection.

Sign up to New in the Library

Helping you keep children safe

Read our guide for professionals on what we do and the ways we can work with you to protect children and prevent abuse and neglect.

Read our guide (PDF)

Impact and evidence

Find out how we evaluate and research the impact we’re making in protecting children, get tips and tools for researchers and access resources.

Our impact and evidence

Get expert training and consultancy

Grow your child protection knowledge and skills with CPD certified courses delivered by our experts nationwide and online.
Get expert training

Sharing knowledge to keep children safe

Read our guide to the NSPCC Knowledge and Information Service to find out how we can help you with child protection queries, support your research, and help you learn and develop.

Read our guide (PDF)