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.

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