What if our youth practices are the trigger for young peoples challenging behaviour?

When i was delivering detached youthwork a few years ago and develop thinking about young people and their alcohol misuse, i developed (though probably more likely lifted from other similar processes) a diagram which tried to explain it that looked a bit like this : (excuse the quality, its a photo from a power point screen, i didn’t have publisher to develop it originally)

A short note of explanation. We sort of worked backwards.

We saw young people drinking on the streets and asked them why and how they came to do this behaviour. There was often a trigger for it, and at the same time this could coincide (though not always) with a ‘vulnerable time’ that the young person was going through. And some, no, nearly all, the vulnerable times were significant. From anniversary of friends death, family bereavement or exam time. The triggers ranged too. From ‘it being what we always do’ or ‘its friday’ (so same as the adults in town too) , to ‘shit week at school’ . But the two, a trigger, met with a vulnerable time – as well as a combination of collective planning via social media, and the desire for escape, collective social gathering and fun created for them the perfect reasoning for drinking on the streets. That just moving them on wouldnt make much difference.

Image result for challenging behaviour

Yesterday I used this slide – and a number of other similar ones (inserted in this piece) to help youthworkers reflect and help to create responses to challenging behaviour that they might have experienced in a youth club scenario.

Within similar models and processes of thinking about challenging behaviour a number of common questions arise (youll see them on the diagrams)

Image result for challenging behaviour

The questions tend to be:

  1. What is the behaviour – what types are being expressed?
  2. Are there patterns to it? – ie are situations more common
  3. In the situation – what are the moments that trigger the behaviour?
  4. Are there any underlying causes?

And these, as the above shows, often retain in a cycle. One of the things about the alcohol use and challenging behaviour that is different, is that the trigger and vulnerable time happen or during the decision making of then going drinking. So, as youth workers we could work backwards with them knowing that the patterns and triggers where proceeding. Though sometimes drinking could be a trigger for further drinking (again same for everyone..?)

With responding to challenging behaviour in the youth club environment, whilst there is still a very good chance that underlying issues and some community activity prior to the youth club may have been trigger ( ie being bullied, a social media message, family issue) – and this could be met head on at the door (rather than in the club) – there is a more than likely possibility that our youth provision is the trigger for their challenging behaviour.

There is a saying that for many issues in a youth organisation, most can be traced back to the governance.

The challenging behaviour in a youth club expressed by young people, might have some of its cause, and some of the patterns and triggers for it, could similalry be traced back to within the youth club itself.

But for a short moment, Ill scale back a bit and ask – who is the youth provision for? Who is there for the benefit of who?

If young people are the primary client – as per Howard Sercombe’s definition:

Youth work is a professional relationship in which young people are engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe 2010:27)

then this means that young people are the people who the youth provision is for, it is they whom we as youth workers serve. It is less the programme, the activity, the building and the funders or trustees – albeit all do have a part to play. If the youth club is a youth venue, then young people, unless they are told differently and given the option of not attending it because it is not about them (ie it is a religious service that they did know about and self opted out). But the open youth club, that seems to be an open space for young people to chat, choose to do activities, create, make and develop purposeful relationships through conversation is intrinsically a space that is for the principle purpose of serving young people. ‘Client’ may be a not very nice word, but if it helps us to think about the practice of youthwork as serving (and empowering and enabling to participate, and valuing young people) then it suffices.

So, in that case – there is an issue if the very spaces that should be about serving young people – are the places where for one reason or another , because human interaction is complex and challenging – might be the very places that are the trigger for the challenging behaviour.

Of course it would be easy to say that its all the young people ‘triggering’ each other… like

  • one of them crushing the table tennis ball
  • someone shouting insults
  • one of them threatening the other
  • and this list might go on…

But what if its not them, or maybe, even if it them doing the above – what is it about the way in which the social space has been created where we as leaders and workers havent attempted better ways of reducing challenging behaviour even between the young people?

The same goes for the challenging behaviour that seems to triggered by our actions.

On one hand, whether through negligence or accident – we did not communicate the codes of behaviour very well, or how the evening was going to be different to ‘normal’, or spent time with a volunteer who was struggling before the session ..and they then said something a bit provocative to a young person… – a myriad of ‘small ish’ things that we could have done differently to aid and create an enironment that may have maintained more calm spaces than ended up. (And it usually is a myriad of small things)

But it is our challenging behaviour if our reflection is ‘weve always done things this way and no one complained before’

or ‘if they dont like it, they can leave

Who has the challenging behaviour then?

And these are more obvious. As one contributor to my session yesterday considered. What if it is the raising of awareness of a different way of being, acting and behaving- that this challenges young people outside their comfort zone? where, the kind of example might be that young people dont know or say they cant ‘no fight back’ in an argument – or are learning a new way of being in situations like group work, open club spaces. So a task we have, in working with them is to create small steps of trying out new behaviours, and rewarding them (probably), with lots of affirmation and encouragement (even if this in itself might be hard to take) .

The obvious triggers for receiving challenging behaviour are easy to spot and possibly do something about (we need to up our game or change it, or stop doing something).

But what if its much deeper than that, what if the different way of conceiving the world – is too outside the norm, too far removed for a young person to want to buy into, or is threatened by? And before you jump in, its not just young people. organisations who dont collaborate as a new way of being, or see a new way but find this too difficult to comprehend may also act as if threatened.

To note, some of this is fairly likely as it will question the young persons internal narrative – how they made sense of the world up to that point made sense to them. By presenting a new way of being this has to be tried, tested, or ignored, disregarded or accepted (Dan McAdams, 1993, 2001) to become part of the young persons narrative identity. An identity they are continually constructing (and so, but it takes a slower time, are we) . Young people are trying to make sense of the world and their part in it, through the receiving of information – our information through conversations may ultimately expand and add to that story in a good way – but there are tension points for them in allowing it to. Then again we should get this… after all we all have beliefs and deep opinions that take a while to change, whether its the acceptance of Female Bishops or the belief that young people aren’t the disobedient lazy oafs the daily mail present them as.

So – in a number of ways – what if we are the key triggers of the young peoples challenging behaviour? – after all we might actually need to be to ultimately help them or support them into thinking more positively about themselves and their futures.

References

Sercombe, Howard Youthwork Ethics, 2010.

MacAdams, Dan The Stories we live by, 1993, another piece i wrote on Narrative identities is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-LA

Young people need autonomy and connectedness, can Christian youthwork provide it?

I Saw this on social media the other day:

A great tension for young people is their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves while making their own rules. Impossible. (Michael Wear)

Think about it for a moment, then think about what being a young person was like for you in regard to these two things. At the point of wondering about an individuals place in the world, comes a desire to also be in control and make their own rules.

It might be fair to say, the more privileged a young person is, the more opportunity they have to make their own rules, or at least have more autonomy about their own future. But that doesn’t take away their desire to be a rule maker, or have autonomy in situations

It might also be fair to say, that the less day to day responsibilities, stress and turbulence a young person encounters in daily life, the more opportunities that they might have to contemplate the ‘bigger story’.  But again, that doesnt mean to say that it is absent. Neither does it mean that it isnt speculated – just often might not be given the opportunity. Thats the Maslow hierarchy, its only when basic needs are met that actualisation can occur – well thats not quite accurate.

Maybe the question for young people might be how they place themselves in the great Universe, do they consider themselves free – to do what they want – or controlled – as if God already knows therefore humanity is merely puppetry. What if these questions are the ones young people are contemplating in their deep recesses of their soul – beyond or during the distractions from technology?

There might be an argument, that there is a lack of coherent stories in the western world that young people can metaphorically attribute to their own existence. Young People  (as they grow, psychologists tell us) form a narrative identity (probably) to piece together all the parts of their life as a story – yet the most common stories about their existence dont hold water, even if they want them too, such as Disney or materialism. For each generation of people, the founding stories and sacred myths lose their half life. The problem here is that once the story collapses, and there is confusion amongst the personal identity, as well as reduced autonomy and connection, then there are higher levels of mental health problems. Young people dont have a story to live by (McAdams, 1997), just a day to day existence in which accumulation of stuff, of popularity or personal display of images is what derives meaning. Its not a story to live by, but a station on the journey that might be full of mirrors., that gets adopted as a story.  Even via technology young people are not setting the rules, its adults who shape the apps, create the platforms, sell the games and keep young people attracted/addicted/manipulated by them. Young peoples autonomy is temporarily met, as might be their connection. If Studies show that getting a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is equivalent to a drug hit, then its no wonder alcohol sales have reduced amongst young people. (To be honest, I’m just the same when a person reads one of my articles -its nowt to do with young people.) Its temporary connection repeated often. Everything louder than everything else.

In their narrative identity, should they be able to adapt one that suits their being, the best one that young people choose is likely to allow for them to have autonomy, and probably also give them purpose, its also likely to provide self worth, confidence and also meaning, and it orientates the person into society in a way that enables them to connect, to function and to be purposeful in their history and that they can have consistency in their previous, current and future recognition of self (Bryan, 2016, p95). What is significantly interesting is that areas of stronger folk religion, of tribes and of community history have lower, almost invisible, incidents of mental health issues. (see: https://newint.org/columns/essays/2016/04/01/psycho-spiritual-crisis) Ie they have a story that they can live by that is not subject to constant challenge, crisis or breakage.

This was published today (21st December.) An existential crisis is impacting mental health. https://opendemocracy.net/transformation/john-f-schumaker/demoralized-mind 

In a much acclaimed study that discovered that MTD was the faith position of many american young people. What Christian Smith also discovered was that belonging to youth groups and believing in a sacred story that gave young people meaning was a ‘good’ thing in terms of their social, mental and physical health. (Smith, C, 2005) I have sidetracked somewhat. Believing in something sacred might be better than believing in nothing.

The question from the outset was whether young people can have both autonomy and connection. I wonder whether young people leave churches and groups because they feel that neither of these things are met. At a time they want connection, they get passed from group to group, at a time they want autonomy they dont have choice. But that could of course all change. Change because we might begin to realise in working with young people that these two factors, in tension, are at play all the time.

When young people challenge me on the streets, asking ‘why are you here?’ what they actually mean is can I trust you. 

They are searching for connection, a connection they can believe in. When young people give up on church, is it because theres nothing for them, or nothing for them. They spot a rat from a mile off and will protect themselves accordingly. Why invest in something not worth investing in. If playing football gives more value and provides more meaning. Or homework does, because the ‘story’ of school and achievement within education has ‘higher’ meaning. But often no more rule making or connected ness, just a rung to place that might lead to this. ‘Having a job, Having a house’ the promise of future autonomy.

So, what about faith. No Sacred story conveys all the human being might require at least not to what psychologists suggest. If the story does, then often the community that practices it might not do. We have to take seriously that young people, especially young women might not have any autonomy in a church, often ignored for the ‘leader’ privileges within youth ministry.. -so why stay? even if the Bible can be read in a way that values women (because it does) – a limited interpretation and power dynamics might say otherwise in a local congregation. So it is stay and believe it and accept submission, or challenge (which many young people do) not find a ‘home’ where challenge is possible, then leave. Leaving as an exercise of autonomy.

It might be more key that young people, do not just hear stories of the gospel, but believe that they are part of the story, performers of its drama. Narratives go so far. Young people can be connected to the story of the past, and yet also have agency in the drama in the future to act in response to God in the midst. Being connected and autonomous at the same time.

Considering the Christian story as a drama to perform, might provide the Connnectedness and Autonomy that a young person is looking for and needing. Youth Ministry, as i suggested in my previous post, would do well to reflect on the possibility that it has the task of the formation of performers who need to know their part, their location in the drama and to be attuned to hearing the ongoing voice of God who prompts in the midst. If young people feel that they are only a number


or one of many in a queue in the church, then they’ll search elsewhere for the autonomy and connection that being a young person is all about for them. Its what many gangs provide. Can Youth Ministry appeal to young people tense need for connection and autonomy? – it could. Why doesnt it?

Its our role to be witnesses of the Story, and maintain not its believing and telling, but its participation and performing. What might Theodrama offer youth ministry? A whole story to participate in and view the world through, and a task of human flourishing, the reconciliation to perform along with the principle actor Christ in the midst. I see no better way of a young person finding connection and autonomy than that. So how might our practices do the same?

Maybe values of empowerment and participation are psychologically important after all.

 

 

References

Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

McAdams Dan, The stories we live by, 1997

Smith Christian, Soul searching, The rise and fall of faith of American Teenagers, 2005

Vanhoozer Edification, Volume 4 Issue 1, 2010, The transdisciplinary journal of Christian Psychology. Vanhoozer.

Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2010.

Youthwork: the importance of developing young peoples narrative identities

Johanna Wyn and Rob White say something, i think, quite profound about the views of adolescent development; one that certainly youthworkers in faith based settings, and schools should reflect on, they propose that:

Product Detailsa relational concept of youth offers an approach to understanding the social meaning of growing up that can take into account the diverse ways in which young people are constructed through social institutions, and the ways in which they negotiate their transitions (Wyn and White, 1997)

What they compare their approach to is many of the psychological, and physiological theories of youth development which can objectify this period of time for a person as a stand alone moment, and more significantly can imply that there are correct, uniform ways of completing this phase of life, and by not being ‘correct’ a young person can quickly be deemed at risk, deviant of different.

So, what Wyn and White are suggesting is that instead of  ‘youth’ being a period of transition, instead it is a time of construction.

Some of you might have more likely come across David Elkinds book, All grown up and no place to go (1998), in it, following work by Piaget, Elkind suggests that at some point during adolescence a young person will begin to create personal fables of themselves, doing so with a concept of past, present and future experience. It might only be when the person has the capacity, mentally, to do this that it occurs, but at this point something shifts in a young persons thinking. But they can start to go beyond the here and now, they might be able to describe themselves differently and play around with word play, however, it is the fable construction that i think is interesting, especially as it ties in with Wyn and White above, that youth is a time for construction and negotiation of social institutions, because at the same time, this negotiation involves a young person being able to narrate their own fable for coping/surviving/flourishing within it.

We are heading towards thinking about narrative identity.

A Narrative is another way for saying story. Bruner says that as humans we either reflect on our lives pragmatically (the facts and figures) or we understand the world through stories (human wants, desires, goals, motivations). It is part of ourselves to tell ourselves stories during every day to help us through incidents and experiences, it is a story of a memory that is positive that might help us through something unpredicted, it might be that we survived something previously that means we can do it again. Some of these stories have themes, such as agency ( i survived with purpose and confidence), Redemption ( it was tough but i made it through, or something happened to rescue me), Communion (i was helped and we got through the ‘love’ of someone motivated me) and without probably realising it, we tell ourselves these stories, as adults all the time. However, when it comes to difficult or trauma situations, we can find ourselves only being able to tell half a story  (as we are still living it in the moment) or a contaminated one – (all was going fine, then this happened, and i lost it, got angry and i am never going to go and see that person/dentist/doctor again- for example).

However, the stories we tell, that shape our narrative have a huge impact. For if we can tell ourselves positive redemptive stories of past experiences, then we are likely to be courageous or confident about a situation. (after all it didnt go too bad last time, or the pain was worth it..) The narrative identity provides us as with a unity of the horizons of our past, and our future in order that we can make sense of actions in the present. McAdams and Mclean state that; ‘Narrative Identity is a persons internalised and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to  provide life with some degree of unity and purpose’

If any of you have seen the film Inside Out (2015) by Disney,  you will have seen an example of how a traumatic event brought chaos to the narrative identity of a young person, all the thoughts about their life that were in positive joyful stories became affected by one event. The trauma became the lens, and the young person struggle to renegotiate and reconstruct new stories, redemptive, agency stories about how she could cope in the future. What you might have noticed was that it was not the events per se that cause the negative emotions, and what might (if it wasnt a Disney film) have resulted in depression or mental health concerns, but it was the narrative created by the young person towards the event. They had disunity of themselves and couldnt cope, and no experience of a similar situation to overcome.

So, Youth is a time of construction. Constructing narratives about 1000’s of interactions, about 5-10 institutions, about friends, about heroes, about hobbies, about skills.

But where do they get the tools to create stories, well, easy, for many young people it is from their childhood, the stories they hear, the archetypes of characters, the arc of storylines from Mr Men books to Harry Potter, to watching films. Crucially a young person may conceived of many narrative types and assimilated their own to it, before that have the mental capacity in adolesence to construct their own stories.

At this point it is worth reflecting on the roles of the people then to support young people. If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions,

If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions, care givers, friends and the like – what might be the best role for a youthworker to take in this? especially when a young persons mental health ( and incidents of mental health issues amongst young people are rocketing) is at stake?  There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church

There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church sunday school – it could have the same institutional feel. Quite interestingly if a young person doesnt have power or autonomy in a situation then they are more likely to construct a negative narrative about, one that demotivates- and to a point we all know what that is like. So, even though it might be a personal narrative, socio and economic factors are in play, for not only might less opportunities for a young person be available if they are from a ‘poorer’ background, but the ability for them to have choice about their destiny is reduced, as is their autonomy, agency or power. What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it

What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it isnt that there is a scheme for disadvantaged young people and they are labelled as such, it is that they might have no choice but to go on it… or be sanctioned by the job centre, or be forced to leave a care home. Even if something deemed positive is presented – are they as likely to have choice in the matter..? its so important..

The key ways in which a young person is given affirmative tools for narrative construction are, yes the stories from an early age, but also the space to reflect and talk, someone who will listen and affirm them, and some one who will help them to understand their experiences and reappropriate them in their own story.

It like being what Coburn and Wallace say youthwork should be – a ‘border pedagogy’ (2010)- someone who is  between the institutions, in the gaps, to help learning across it all. Someone who helps a young person by asking them reflective questions and helps them make sense of the world. The tragedy is that those who want to fund youthwork want to put youthworkers in institutional roles, in delivery agencies- rather than in the gaps where they can be most helpful and helping a young person form constructive, and reappropriate negative- narrative identities.

What is additionally interesting, is that young people assimilate their narrative identity, like we all do, with an emerging larger story about their place in the world, of life purpose or goal – or ideology, meta narrative (dont tell me they dont exist)

If you’re not that interested in faith based youthwork/ministry – then maybe look away now – but the ideology could equally apply as something like socialism, marxism or agnosticism.

During the period of narrative construction, the young person is also trying to discover how their life story includes, resonates with and is part of the bigger life stories in the world, such as religion, ideologies, beliefs or values. The mind of the young person is trying to make sense of the world and therefore is asking questions about faiths as they see contradictions, or inauthenticity – but also because they want it to make sense, and be true enough to adopt, and form their narrative identity around the ideologies that they are part of.

So, let me ask these questions –

  • For the young person who has been brought up a faith – and leaves the ‘church’ before the age of 12 – are they likely to incorporate the ideology of that faith into their life narrative?  maybe – maybe if they find an alternative, or had a bad experience of ‘leaving’ .
  • Alternatively how might a young person adopt a faith as a life narrative if they only join it at 14-15?
  • What damage is done to a young persons narrative if a church rejects them, but they wanted and needed the ideology of faith to motivate and guide them? –
  • How might the young person narrate the church as an institution, verses its story of faith as an ideology..?

These arent easy questions – but have we ever considered them in youth ministry in relation to a young persons narrative identity, and what it might mean that their identity becomes wrapped up in the story or stories of the faith?

For a young persons narrative identity in youth ministry – what kind of story do they feel part of when they join, or as they have been part? – is it a story at all – or moral propositions? what purpose does having faith have in the long term and how might that create motivational goals for a young persons identity and behaviour? It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith

It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith institution, or an ideology. I remember at school, lots of people became vegetarian aged 15, because a teacher could show a video of cows being inhumanely slaughtered and animal welfare being shoddy, it sickened enough of my friends not to eat meat for a few weeks, but it wore off. But a very simple ideology and message had a two week effect for most, and one or stuck with it and became green party activists. Is that the same effect of simple presentations of other faiths? Or do young people maybe want something they can believe in and find purpose and meaning in for their life story, purpose and future. I guess that’s what costly discipleship of any faith might look like.

As youthworkers, maybe our role on the streets and in the schools, is that helping young people make sense of the world, but it is also to help them to reflect on their life’s experiences to form positive unifying stories that enable themselves to have confidence, agency, purpose and determination, and that often used word resilience ( but i think i am using it right) . If we’re working with young people who have less opportunities and choice, then this will affect their life narrative – and so regardless of the scenario we need to promote autonomy and choice as much as is possible, as a way of helping their mental health. And then, as an addition, the philosophical questions of life may be significant to a vast number of young people, how might faith become coherent as part of their story, so that they play a role in whole community and human flourishing through it.

Youthworkers in the spaces, all the more reasons why its good to have conversations with young people.

References:

Coburn Annette, Wallace, David, Youthwork in schools and communities, 2012

Elkind, David, All grown up and no place to go, 1998

McAdams, Dan, The stories we live by, 1993

McAdams Dan, Kate McLean Narrative Identity, Current Directions is psychological science Vol 22 issue 3, pp 233-238, 2013

Wyn J and White, D, Rethinking Youth, 1999