Should Youthworkers be ‘policing’ young peoples emotions?

Getting young people off the streets, that was and still is one of the old mandates for youth workers, getting young people into other institutions was another.

Youthworkers effectively were tasked with policing the streets – or policing the third space in between organisations, so that young people wouldn’t fall through the gaps.

There is a new place for youthworkers, to effectively police ‘in town’.

And, though it is not new, it is back with a vengeance.

Youthworkers now tasked with policing young peoples emotions?

Young people are to be happy, and to be well.

The area of value is not the social space of the park, but the heart space, the attitude, the feelings of the young person.

Policing young peoples emotions so that ‘they are not unhappy’ with their lot..- I wonder.

I am just returning back from todays In defence of youthwork national conference, in Birmingham, in which the principle subject was on ‘happiness and well being’ . A number of conversations curated the day in which the concept that youthworkers had a new responsibility of ensuring the happiness of young people was a significant part of them.

I might suggest, that we would do well to be able to determine what ‘Happiness’ is – or even what ‘well-being’ is (and well being was only referred to during the day). But Happiness was explored in brief by Tony Taylor in the morning, and referring to Aristotle talked about human flourishing, and ended with a call to social happiness, social well being – after regaling his own frustrations with happiness as concept that focuses on the individuul to find contentment in the most shittest of situations, the most restricted of settings, education systems and welfare and benefit systems and housing scenarios, not to mention family, health and employment situations. But yes – ‘Be Happy’ throughout.

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If the world of psycho- therapy and self help – places much of the responsibility of determining happiness with the individual, and I admit at this point, having recently undergone a period of time where counselling and therapy has been profoundly useful for me personally, I am also intrinsically aware that an individual can only affect their own happiness in a certain way. And equally, it has only been after my own counselling that I may even have tools and concepts to hand to help young people deal with their emotions. But is that the point?

I agree with Tony. We can do so much. We can decide individually how we might react in situations, we may even try and regulate our emotions, we may even feel happy. We may be able to to this ourselves individually.

But ‘Man is not an Island’. We are in community, as are every single young people and the groups of them who we interact with. There is a flow of communication, attention, emotion, complaints, pressure, tasks and trauma passed around, and young people may not, can not have the tools and experience to cope with these. Not without serious therapy and counselling – surely (and that isn’t the role of the youthworker is it..)

I am reminded of the considerable work of Cormac Russel and the Nurture Development site. Whilst there may be critiques of the purist Asset based community development. What I find in that resource, is a real determination to understand that community flourishing, community use of gifts, community development is the principle key to unlock many of the issues that any individual within it (including young people) will be. Developing community is key, good youthwork only exists in good community work. Social happiness may only be possible when the whole community is more on an equal footing, as ‘The Spirit level’ book ascertains. And so, poverty and inequality are factors in the depression and sadness that all face – even the rich- because their wealth is never enough. Loneliness is not an individual problem, it is a community problem.

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I might break off from this point and insert that it is far too difficult to not look at even our most prominent belief stories as episodes of individual faith, because our lens has shifted so far into the quagmire of individual thinking. A tendency to tell the Christian story about ‘how God saves me’ – might be dominant – but the reality, as the most famous verse in the Bible says ‘God so loved.. the whole world’ … the isrealites wandered in community, the trinity is a community, the early church was a collective. It would be dangerous to read to closely the position of the christian faith (as one example) as solely about ‘the individual’ – yet from our vantage point where individualism is key it would be harder not to. This is the point Christian Smith makes, saying that american Christianity for young people has become less of a community transformation programme (Vanhoozer, 2010), but a ‘self help therapy for the struggling’ – ‘Jesus is for me’ (Smith, C 2003)

I digress, but I think you see my point.

The rise of individualism has infected religion. Our lens is on ourselves, and our own miscontentment. We are own advertisers nightmare. Plagued by our own sense of disconnect and deficit, waiting or the next product to help us feel good, or shopping to alleviate the pain. Or alcohol. Id is from our own plane that we stand. Not ours in community context, but thats what we need to resist to think about young people. see them in community context. See them as Goetschius and Tash (1965) tried to say. within a web of community with values, behaviours and interests all interacting in a web of community.

Community flourishing seems a distant dream. The subtlety of neo liberalism, and its evangelists, has placed the responsibility of the shite of the world on the individual to cope with and be happy within, and find all manner of things for dealing with it, and their own mental health – exercise more, eat healthily, meditate – but don’t dare try and make the system be responsible.

About 11 years ago I was involved in a mentoring programme in and linked to schools, helping young people who struggled with school to re connect back, increase their timetable or to deal with some of their issues. Within that programme, it became apparent that dealing with young peoples emotions, or shall I say, helping young people identify, to name, and to reflect on their reactions due to their emotions was a key part. I read Emotional intelligence by David Goleman, as a result. I started to use the Brief solutions therapy mantra of ‘steps’ ‘numbers out of 10’ and giving, I thought young people space to explore emotions. But in such a short term, formal mentoring space it wasn’t ever really possible. It was not done in trusted relationships, and they were too agenda’d. But what I am trying to say is that dealing with young peoples emotions isn’t new. But dealing with young peoples emotions, anger, frustration, hurt and pain, in isolation is doing them a disservice. Helping them cope is only one part of the equation.

And measuring this… well that’s a minefield…..hoping young people tell us how happy they are… really? – when most of us feel happy differently by the hour…

I am not going to return to points ive made previously about ‘Austerity Generation’ and the ‘Market Ethics of schools’ – but something is as clearly wrong. And it is not social medias fault. Social media is a tool, and is often an escape. (and least young people aren’t drowning their sorrows in alcohol as much anymore)

So – what does it mean for youthworkers to be the police of young peoples emotions? Are we in danger of returning the role to the chirpy ‘youthworker as red-coat’ that Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith describe – always being the buoyant entertainer that distracts with fun – or the friendly youth work therapist who tries to go deep… quickly. But really – what is a youthworker really able to do? Or is qualified to do?

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I end this piece with a short delve into some psychology that I am increasingly finding useful.

Deci and Ryan suggest that all human beings are motivated by each of these three things:

Relationship, Autonomy and Competence. (Bryan 2016)

From a youthwork perspective; Howard Sercombe writes that youthwork is a ‘professional relationship in which young people are engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe, 2010)

My overriding question, if youthworkers are to be the ‘emotion police’ is – what kind of connection, autonomy and competence in this space is a young person actually able to participate in? – and in addition – what does this focus on emotions, as a target, do for engaging with young people , as the primary client, in their social context.

If we meet young people in their space, or try and create safe spaces for conversation, what kind of space is a young person going to engage with if its not derived by their agenda, their interests and passions and gifts – rather than be a space where their emotions are under scrutiny.

Youthworkers, who curated during the day, are some of the most imaginative around for trying to do practice that ‘looks like youthwork’ even in a space dictated by the latest agenda ( and knife crime is also another one) – and significant credit where credit is due, as any work with young people is valid and important. But policing the streets was an impossibility and best left for police – the intensity of young peoples emotions might be best left with the kind of well trained counsellors who can do this.

Maybe youth workers have crosses the line and subliminally become the crisis therapists, employed by the crisis theoreticians as spoken of by Freire here;

(Education for critical consciousness 1974 p11)

But whatever happened to just trying to to create spaces of relationships, of creativity, or groups, of activity, of participation and even entrepreneurship all of which will allow young people to have connectivity, autonomy and become competent. Then, and this done in community, with families, with the institutions, and others, might be the best way of making more than just young people happy. It might make the community happy too.

We would never say that we would want young people to feel worse after meeting us, but happiness might not be likely if we have exposed and helped them become more self aware of the issues that affect them and how they react. They might know more but be less content as a result, needing a personal struggle to assimilate new information into their previously normative world view and identity.

We’ve got a long way to go. But the journey doesn’t start with fixing young people and helping them feel something, despite their circumstances. Policing young peoples emotions… really? Is that what youth work has come to?

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Dealing with the difficult: ‘the day after’

Later that Day, two of Jesus followers were walking from Jerusalem to the Village of Emmaus, seven miles away’ – this is the unassuming beginning of how the gospel writer Luke opens the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

‘Later, Jesus appeared to the disciples beside the sea of Galilee, many of them were there, Peter said, ‘Im going fishing’ and they all joined him’  is a paraphrase of Johns description of what Peter and some of the disciples did, a few days after the resurrection.

‘The Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and now he was returning’ is Lukes description of the Ethiopians situation in Acts 8.

For all of them it was the day after, or at least the evening after. 

For Peter, it was the day after the miraculous resurrection, but he knew there would have to be ‘a talk’ , For the disciples there had been such a commotion after the resurrection that they needed to head home, maybe they had to go anyway, back to Emmaus. For the Ethiopian, he was on his way back to Ethiopia after being to Jersusalem on some kind of pilgrimage and hed left probably early, disheartened and confused. We know he wouldnt have planned to be travelling during the heat of the sun…

What of the days after in our Youth work and Ministry;

the day after the residential – everyone had an amazing time but back to the office and you wonder how to make it even better next yearImage result for youth camp

the day after the detached session when there was a fight and you ended up chatting to the police till late, today you have to let the chair of trustees know

the day after the PCC meeting that really did. not. go. well

the day after every youth group which gives us challenges, hopes, energy and life – to be met with a monday day of admin

the day after the funding bids returned unsuccessful

the day after handing in the essay or dissertation to be marked 

the day after anything can be a day of mixed emotions, when the adrenaline has peaked and run out, where there are difficult decisions to be made, where there is sense to be made in what might be complexity and confusion. What we might also be good at doing is creating the highs for others, including young people, the event, the club, the camp, the holiday club, and so for them they also have the ‘day after’ to deal with. God might be said to be more miraculously present in the high.

What of the disciples as they walked away into the night from Jerusalem

What of Peter taking the boys out fishingImage result for peter fishing

what of the Ethiopian travelling home

None of them were technically alone, they each had persons with them, whether the chariot rider, fellow disciple or mates on the boat. But having been in the moments of ‘high’ they were now alone, their emotions all over the place, confused, perplexed.

No one is remotely surprised by this, not even Jesus has a go at Peter for fishing. They needed time to breathe, recharge and remind themselves of a skill they once had, the familiar.

However, it is in the day after that God met them all in the familiar. On the familiar road, on the familiar beach with that familiar smell of fish being cooked, and in the familiar chariot hurtling through the desert.

It was in the day after that serious business was taking place. Serious education, discipleship and questions like:

what are you discussing as you walk – tell me more’ – Jesus wants to hear and help us understand

‘Do you understand what you are reading‘ asks Philip, tell me more about how you perceive it, feel about it

Fellows have you caught any fish‘ asks Jesus, the bread is nearly ready, and I know you’ll feel alot better a)having caught something, and b) eating it.

Now come and have breakfast‘ says Jesus who spends time with them on the beach, in the day after, Can i find understanding, belonging and acceptance here?, asks the Ethiopian on the road, Did our hearts burn as we began to understand? – exclaimed the disciples on their road.

So, whats it like for you in the ‘day after’ ? More to the point, what might it also be like for your volunteers, young people in the day after also.

without intending so, our ministry moments might be so highly narrated with God, that by default it can become that day to living is devoid of seeing the spiritual in the mundane – when this neednt be the case

understandably ‘the day after’ a day before of a struggle, challenge, meetings or big decision can bring about a range of emotions, confusion, fear and anxiety. Going fishing, walking or a drive in the car (across a desert..?) may be whats required.

We might also need to be present in other peoples days after, in between the spaces, not just in the spaces, but in the spaces of time, in the day after.

This isnt the time to talk about self care in ministry, only to reflect on the effect of its variety of challenges and emotions.

So – what about you – what about the ‘day after’ for you- what do you do?

If God met the disciples in the days after, we should expect the same dangerous God to meet people in the times unexpected to our design today too, including ourselves.

 

The emotional reality of the exits in Youthwork and Ministry

Sometimes i wonder if the way in which young people are treated we think that they are some kind of alien species. Often it is because various institutions and maybe even youthworkers to justify their own existence and specialism, have created a narrative about young people that gives them special status, using terms like transition, or identity, or others to describe the age group. However, i wonder whether in the treating of young people as an alien species – we forget that their capacity or the effect of the actions or youth work & ministry on their emotions. Forgetting that they have them.

Why do i say this?

Well in the world of the street based youthwork, most people will talk about how it can be unpredicatable, and the connections superficial, irregular even. That the young people who are ‘most in need’ of detached youthwork might be said to be at risk, disadvantaged (and im only using these words as examples) , that they might act in certain ways, believe certain things – but what about the young person we meet on the street who might be a person with emotions?  (and im not ‘just’ talking about anger.)

But even these young people, a year or two later ask after previous workers, ones who ‘meant’ something to them. Ones they connected with, ones that left them after a year, or two. Even if there was only a few conversations a few shared memories, a few moments over a year – these meant something, two people connected in the public space. There was an emotional connection.

What of the youth group?

Might we stop to think about the emotional connections that young people make in their groups, clubs and churches with peers, workers and leaders?  Yet, when we think about young people as having emotional connections – how does this affect the styles of youth ministry that they experience?  So, not unlike above – does the church give young people temporoary connections with year on year workers? Or does the education structure of a church mean that young people are asked to move up to different classes and not maintain a long term connection with the same person for a long term ( in effect copying school) – so that one or two people develop deep connections – rather than young people making connections group by group.

Of course then there are situations where the youthworker is only around for 2-3 years. Again – does the church think about the emotional connections that could be built up – then affected when the 3 years is up..?

In Jocelyn Bryans book Human Being (2016)  she describes how that emotions are an important source of information and communication, and in addition the emotion displayed is linked to the cognitive appraisal of the situation. So for example, two different young people will react differently to the same mark in an essay paper because for one person it is evaluated against a need to have got a higher mark, the other by a personal desire to have passed. Their evaluation of a situation, in line with goals ( ie to achieve) or thoughts affects the emotions that are displayed. Then as obviously as our evaluations of situations change the way we react to the situations emotionally does too.

The problem occurs when the result of the actions we have taken in youth work and ministry has created hardened fearful and untrusting young people. There is much talk about resilience in regard to young people – the key factor in resilience isnt being able to cope – it is having connections and support structures that are meaningful in order that decisions can be supported or endorsed. Someone doesnt have resilience because they have it, it is a community factor.

So what kind of community does the world of youth ministry/youth work present to young people if it acts in a way that prevents depth, stability and inconsistency? If young people become hardened – because they once emotionally gave and trusted, and were let down – then has the person who was meant to be for them let them down even further – after all the teacher/social worker even Parent might be subject to their own agenda – but the ‘youth’ worker…

When our practices and Ministries promote the gaining of experience by the participants, gap years, college placements, short term projects, rather than thinking ‘this is about young people and they have emotions… how will this affect them, how will this help them.. how am i taking care of them..?’

There is lots of research done on youth Mentoring projects – whereby most of the data suggests that in a one to one mentoring relationship there needs to be a minimum of one year for real benefits to start to take place! A year – thats often 3 times longer than most student term placements! But there are even more benefits when this time is extended. At Durham Youth for Christ, I am so proud that we have been able to mentor young people for anything up to four or five years, with consistent staff in part, and even students who have volunteered for 3-4 years, and the effect on the young people – who now want to become mentors themselves is quite amazing. The young people have been treated in way that their whole persons, not just ‘attending school’ or ‘behaviour’ transformation, but that they are people with emotions who need to be tended to, respected, understood and to a point taken care of. Most young people leave being mentored with us in their own choice, again when they are ready, not when a programme ends, it is when they feel confident, independant. Sometimes, we as youthworkers find it harder to let go, and thats not an emotional crutch thing, but that we also feel emotional, and have invested in young people, giving of ourselves in the process, often giving and giving again. For neither should we be robots either.

It would be odd for people to not care when someone leaves the scene of their lives. In a Biblical context – the Easter story contains many occasions where the Disciples were full of grief, or wept at the death of Jesus, or theres the desperation of Peter – where will I go Lord? – when the pending leaving of Jesus was announced. There are entrances and exits in the ongoing drama of redemption (Vanhoozer 2005; 39). Yet when some of the methods of youth work and ministry exacerbate the leaving, then what might that say about how young people are thought of – just for someones experience? just a step on a professional ladder? a person whose emotions dont matter – theyll get over it… but thats just the point – should the institutions and organisations expect that of young people?

Maybe the best leaders arent the ones that are paid. The best are those that stayed. Who stick with young people. And that is where i know i have failed. Knowing that being paid in youth ministry is so temporary it becomes hard as a worker to give, for their sake or my own. Fear or self protection. But if i feel it, what of the young people themselves when they experience may workers, projects, volunteers – why would they invest again – except to show anger against the systems and structures.

I hope its not a patronising thing to suggest that working with young people has got to recognise that it is an emotional experience, it connects people, it involves them, and in active choice young people will choose experiences, like we all do, that would seek to create the best emotional experience for them. If a young person knows that they might get hurt again – why would they bother? – unless of course they are forced to participate.

 

 

 

Youth and Childrens work learning from ‘Inside Out’

Saturday evening in our house has been ‘family movie’ night this year, there is 4 of us, and so on a rotation basis we choose a movie to watch. It can either have been recorded from TV, one we’ve got on DVD or something new – but usually under £3 from a second hand /charity DVD shop. However, last weekend, we had a treat. We watched, the £7 costing DVD, the highly acclaimed Disney Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’.  If you havent seen it, or want to know about it then the write up and critics reviews are Here on IMDB-Inside Out. But I imagine given its popularity i am on catch up.

 

Image result for inside out

Let me just say this. It is an essential watch for anyone working with children and young adults. Even more essential for those involved in working with children who are becoming young adults.

Why?

Because it is the story of the how the circumstances and emotions of children coincide. Of how, yes, one perspective is given, but how children react to change, significant change – like house moves, or school moves, or friendship moves, or all of the above. It is a story of how emotions are characters inside a childs head (the characters above are those emotions)  and how different circumstances lead to or are the consequence of the emotions trying to have their way with the child, yet there are times when the emotions need to work together. It is a story of imagination, of resilience and of family, of how children perceive, and try and cope. Yes in a Disney Pixar animation.

For the Parent of two children who has asked my children to move twice in the last four years because of ‘Ministry’ It was a particularly difficult watch. No doubt children of those in Ministry who do similar regular moves, and parents who do the same would find the storyline of the film just that little bit close to the bone. Whilst The film was pretty dark at times, because the child would react to such a move with significant emotional trauma, the film did retain enough buoyancy in the colours and the characters for it not to head to bleak, yet it was as much an animated story about families and parents, as it was about the child.

For the youthworker working with young people, or older children, it is a highly educative film, definitely worth spending time watching and reflecting on it, in relation to the families in your groups. I’m not going to say more as I don’t to give away plot spoilers. Only to say as an insight into the inner emotions of children and to have this portrayed in such good animation it is worth £7.  My teenage children thought it was pretty realistic.  Though id question the films Characateur of the Dad – i wish i could blank out of life and ‘just think about football’ – he didn’t come across well – yet if that meant that the star of the show, and to some extent the person we rooted for was the child, then so be it, it was worth it.

However, it was definitely the kind of emotional experience of a film, that would make me think twice, as a parent of watching it again. But one as a Parent, and as someone who works with children and young people it is definitely worth a watch.

Maybe before the church ‘does’ childrens & youthwork- it learns ‘about’ children and young people. This would be a good starting point. Yes we were all children once.

Oh, and watch the extras in the DVD after youve seen the film, they’re very clever, funny and helpful in lightening the mood.

The Emotional reality of Detached youthwork

This evening i was back out on the streets with a new volunteer, you know the type, curious of detached, enthusiastic, keen, so in an attempt to burst the bubble we headed out to have a wander around the main areas of our patch this evening. As an observation session for her, and gave her time to ask questions of what its all about and to get to know the area. During the time i was proudly giving her a grand tour of the area, including the highlights of icy roads, corner shops, CCTV cameras, and bleak dark park areas she asked me two questions, both of which i responded to at the time, but that i would also share with you. the first was;

  1. Do you find that you change who you are when you’re with young people on the streets, to fit in or be understood?

Our conversation had been about accents, and that neither she or I have the same accent as the local young people, and whether our slightly soft East midlands accents would adapt, and we’d start to use words or phrases differently with the young people. I wonder if there is a subconscious adapting, that happens over a long period of time, but not sure if that happens in the space of a conversation with a group in 20 minutes or so. I did suggest that its better to be as ‘normally yourself’ as possible, as being false, and being false to be popular would be acceptable behaviours in terms of treating young people with respect. Neither would be trying to mimic local accents. Its better i suggested to be real, and although young people might find us interesting in a limited way, its better to invest time in being interested in them.

The second question was; do you find that young people react to you like a Father type figure?

This is a phrase id hate to try and adapt to being in the space of detached, i guess for fear of paternalism. Or dependency. Yet for all trying to remain distant and professional, there is no getting away from the fact that doing detached youthwork is a highly relationship orientated activity, and as such there’s no escaping that emotional connections, and responses can occur. Because albeit we want to help, and support and educate young people, we also do this in having conversation and connecting, communicating and in that there can be emotional connections. Would it be reasonable to suggest that this is common? And hear me out, its not from ill placed desires or personal needs, its that there can be a genuine sense of care, and connection with our personal emotions that is brought about when we interact with young people. We do care, and also young people might do so too. Its why they get annoyed when workers they trusted leave, or they vie for attention. As a team in Perth we used to either walk young people to or wait for them to get onto the last buses out of town, there was something completing in the sense of them leaving the city to head to their homes, also something assuring and maybe yes slightly paternal, at times it became a routine, but in some ways it was our way of showing regular care or connection with their lives. Can, that crazy, unpredictable world of detached youthwork also be a place of genuine emotional connections, in the place and space of young people – well yes – why because its where young people are able to choose it and choose us too.

Next week we’ll quit the chatting about detached when we walk around, it’ll be jackets and ID on, and starting to have conversations with young people, hopefully real ones, and real moments to connect with young people.

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